Nothing puts a theatre audience in the world of the past like the silhouettes and details of period-specific costumes. So, for the April 2018 production of Kate Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility (at Drayton Hall Theatre through April 21, 2018), Theatre SC sought the help of an expert designer to bring the romantic Regency era setting of Jane Austen’s story to life.
Actually, Artistic Director Robert Richmond didn’t have to look far. He offered the job to professional Costume Designer Mariah Hale, with whom he has worked numerous times at The Folger Theatre (Twelfth Night, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, among others), as well as at The Lost Colony. In fact, Hale came to the project already having a considerable understanding of Hamill’s adaptation; she previously designed costumes for The Folger’s production of the show in 2016.
“Mariah is one for the greatest story tellers I have ever met,” says Richmond. “She does not just design costumes for the characters, she designs clothes with meticulous care and detail. In all of the productions we have ever collaborated on, she never fails to respect the story, or find the humanity. Underneath every piece of fabric there is a real beating heart.”
Hale has extensive experience working in theatrical costume design, including a twenty-five year career working as an Associate Designer with design legend William Ivey Long on Broadway shows such as A Bronx Tale, Chicago, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and Guys and Dolls. In addition, she has been the Associate Designer and supervisor of costume operations at The Lost Colony, America’s longest-running outdoor drama, for fifteen seasons.
Hale recently took time out from preparing for the show to do a brief Q&A about Sense and Sensibility and her impressive career. She also offered some no-nonsense advice for young theatre artists.
How did we connect with you for this production?
I frequently work with Robert Richmond, and I believe you had a need that I could fill. He called me and it seemed like a fun thing to do. I don’t get to work with students a whole lot. And, I love this project — I’ve done it before — and I’m a big Jane Austen fan. I never tire of Jane Austen.
Since you’ve done the show before, is there anything different about what you did
at the Folger vs. the designs for this production?
There’s quite a bit, actually. Although I was able to use clothes that I had built for the Folger in this production, some of them are used in different ways. As it turns out, the things I wasn’t able to use from before, I’m glad I couldn’t use, because they wouldn’t have been right. It’s not just about the fact that the cast is different and their shapes are different and their ages are different. The biggest difference I would say is the size of the venue. Drayton Hall is quite a large proscenium, so everything has to be a little bit bigger. It’s a little more costume-y. At the Folger, which is very intimate, it’s more like doing a film. Everybody sees it up close and personal, so they have to be more like everyday clothes, whereas in Drayton Hall it needs to be bigger and bolder in order to make the same point about the characters.
This is a period show but written in a contemporary style. Did that affect your design in any way?
I do period research and I try to base all the clothes on actual period silhouettes and even extant clothes from museums that I copy directly; but, just by definition of doing it in 2018, it’s going to be more modern. There’s no way to avoid it. Just as when you see a period film from 1975, you know it was made in 1975 even if it was set in 1775, because there’s just no avoiding that contemporary lens through which [it’s created.] It’s like a wash over the entire look of the clothes. 2018 can’t help but to seep into 1805.
Do you have a particular approach to creating the costume design for a show?
Speaking of my work with Robert Richmond, his job is to serve the playwright and then
my job is to serve the director. So, it’s the director’s storytelling that I am serving.
But, in the way that a director is a big picture person and has an overall view of
what the story is going to be, my job is to pay attention to detail. So, I’m about
the individual story of each person, which is why I work directly with the actors.
And I always start out by saying to actors, “This is supposed to be a tool with which
I help you create a character, not a hindrance to keep you from accomplishing things.”
So, it is a collaborative effort. Yet, when you get everybody up on stage, you can’t
have one individual story being told more loudly than anyone else’s, especially when
it’s an ensemble piece like this. There has to be balance.
...in the way that a director is a big picture person and has an overall view of what the story is going to be, my job is to pay attention to detail. So, I’m about the individual story of each person...
How did you get your start in costume design?
I was a theatre arts major at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and I had a work-study job in the costume shop. We had some guest artists come and I met a woman who made costumes for film and started working for her. She did John Waters films in Baltimore. Then she suggested that I go to school for this, so I went to SUNY-Purchase and got a design BFA. While I was there, I started working for the designer William Ivey Long, and I worked for him on and off for about 25 years. I had found a summer job at The Lost Colony in NC, which a girl from New Jersey didn’t know anything about, neither outdoor drama nor The Lost Colony. But I did know that he designed it, and I wanted to work for a high profile designer. So, I went down there and I guess you could say we hit it off. I ended up being the type of person that he wanted to have on his team.
Any highlights of working with William Ivey Long you can share?
Oh, sure. My first Broadway play was a Neil Simon play, which is surreal, because I’d only ever seen his photograph, like, on the back of a program or a copy of the play, and to be in the same room with him was just fun enough.
What are the challenges of working at that level of production?
You know, I don’t really find that the challenges are any different. You would think that working with really high profile people or stars would be more challenging, but it’s not any different from working with any actor because you have to treat everybody the same. I mean, yeah, I won’t ask a college student which brand of shoes they prefer, whereas I will ask Chazz Palminteri what brand he prefers, but it’s silly little things like that which are basically just common sense and being polite.
In some ways it’s easier and in other ways it’s more difficult. There’s a lot more running around. The more that you are having built, the more places you’re having things built. You don’t just have things built in one costume shop in NY, you have certain sets of clothes here and there. So, you’re running all over town. You’re the purchasing agent for everything that needs to be put into those clothes, so you have somebody who’s going out and buying buttons and trim and that sort of thing. And, they’re not just buying, but they’re swatching for everything and then bringing it back so you can choose.
Is there also the pressure of designing for replication?
Oh, yeah, that’s definitely a large difference. There’s a difference between the quality of garment you make that lasts for five performances versus six or eight weeks in regional theatre, and then there’s a whole different level for what’s supposed to last for eight shows a week for an indefinite period of time. I mean, we do replace things. I worked for Chicago for almost ten years. And it wasn’t just because we did Australia and London and Berlin and all these other productions. It was also because you have actors going in and out of the show. It’s basically a costume mill. You’re constantly having clothes made. And, you use those clothes until they literally fall off someone’s body.
Sadly, and this was the thing about Chicago, it becomes 90% paperwork and logistics and 10% creativity. The creative thing about Chicago is that, unlike other shows where you come up with a costume and then no matter who goes into that role, that’s going to be the costume, with Chicago — because it’s all underwear — each costume has to be tailored for that specific person. The less they wear, actually, the harder it is to do the clothes, which stands to reason. After a while we had developed thirty looks that could be used in any combination, so we were able to put any body type in one of those thirty looks. It sounds like banking after a while.
You have no choice but to look for jobs working for other people, but at the same time you have to be developing your own projects. Designer, director, actor, whatever your aspirations are, you have to make your own work.
At what point did you begin designing on your own?
In 2008. I had done a few things before, but it just wasn’t satisfying. Working for that many years as an assistant, I will say — and it would be a warning to up and coming designers — will suck the love of the job right out of you. There is a point at which you can be an assistant and stay too long. If you’re known as an assistant designer, it’s hard to make the transition to designer. Especially when you’re working for someone high profile, you’re always known as one of their people, so it’s a trap you can fall into.
Do you have any general advice for students wanting to pursue costume design?
Well, it’s not just for costume designers or designers, it’s also for anybody who is in entertainment, theatre, storytelling. And actually my own daughter is just now starting her career as an actress. You have no choice but to look for jobs working for other people, but at the same time you have to be developing your own projects. For a number of reasons, but partially to keep yourself always in it, even when you are doing that barista job, waiting to be cast in something or waiting for your next assigned job. Designer, director, actor, whatever your aspirations are, you have to make your own work. I’m working on my own projects. You find yourself saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m depending on somebody else for all of my work.” I’m attempting to be a writer. And, I say, “Oh, I’m so scared, I’m not a writer,” to which my daughter says, “Well, you will be after you write something!” So, I’m trying to be inspired by her youthful vigor.
I warn about staying too long as an assistant and being known as an assistant, and
falling into that trap, but there’s no way you can avoid it really. There are very
few designers who never assisted. My advice is if you want to do that then it really
is about the school you go to. There are schools that are well known and each school
has its own personality that churns out a certain type of designer. Some design programs
teach how to draw real pretty, and that’s pretty much it. My design program taught
us how to build clothes, sketch clothes, and also make choices in fittings, and about
fabrics and trims and the like. So, we can kind of do everything. I believe you
can’t really design a dress if you don’t know how to make a dress. It’s all well
and good to draw real pretty, but quite frankly, a sketch is just a means of communication.
It’s not how a costume is going to end up looking, because you’re making decisions
based on the actor’s figure and your collaboration with the actor in that fitting,
and that changes things. You have to be flexible, and some schools don’t really teach
that. So, I’m happy to have gone where I went, and I’m happy to have gone to the
school of William Ivey Long, despite all those pitfalls.
I believe you can’t really design a dress if you don’t know how to make a dress. It’s all well and good to draw real pretty, but quite frankly, a sketch is just a means of communication.
Since you’re so familiar with this version of Sense and Sensibility, what in your opinion are its greatest strengths?
It’s the story. Pride and Prejudice was required reading before my freshman year in high school, and I remember my mother buying it for me and she said, “Just read it.” You have a preconceived notion, if you’re not familiar with Jane Austen and you’re not a fan, that it’s going to be this stuffy, drawing room crap. And you read the first couple of pages and you’re like, “What a minute, this is hilarious. She must be joking.” And she is! I read that book three of four times that summer and felt like I got to know these people. I had kind of a romance with history anyway. I like to imagine myself in another period. And that gives a modern woman who may be a little bit cynical leeway to be romantic if she puts herself in the early 1800s. I even recently watched a run through during tech [rehearsal] while I was looking at clothes, and still cried at the end. I’m a romantic at heart.
Is there anything in particular about this production that is really enjoyable?
The music. I love the music. The idea that this staging uses modern music, but done in a classical style. What I like is that this production is like reading the book for the first time. You think it’s going to be one thing and it completely surprises you. It’s not what it seems to be.
How has your experience working here at USC been?
It’s lovely here. It’s a beautiful campus, so it’s a wonderful place to be. You feel like you’re on vacation. And the people in the costume shop are great. You’ve attracted excellent people here as teachers and mentors to the students. And, it looks like the students get a real taste of what theatre actually is, so what more could you ask for?