A Peek Backstage with Playwright and Costumer Meredith Bean McMath
Theatrical costuming wizardry tells us a story
The Times Square ticket agent shared bad news that April in 1968. Your Own Thing was sold out. I can still see him — a hefty old man with a New York accent. Most everyone was old to me those days. And I’m sure my heavy southern “Ohiah” accent sounded as peculiar to him as his did to me.
I was one of a hundred or so Ohio high schoolers bussed to study Eastern European current affairs in DC and New York City. For most, this trip was the first ever to a metropolis, a city lots bigger than Dayton. For many, it was also the first time to venture beyond Buckeye State borders. Our adult chaperons were equally green. Left on our own in the evenings and between presentations on Yugoslavian politics and the like, we explored. We wandered in Greenwich Village. We saw stenciled ads for Rosemary’s Baby on the crosswalks. Written directions in hand, we went unaccompanied to find our meeting at Columbia. My girlfriend and I snickered as six other students insisted on taking the wrong subway. We found our way by following a young man in a Columbia jacket. The six ended up lost in Harlem. One boy, at the end of his inaugural taxi ride, tipped the cabbie with subway tokens. Policemen patrolled the halls of our hotel, the Edison. For a quarter in a slot, the beds would shake. Boys, not much older than us, operated the elevators. They liked to halt the elevator a few inches below the next floor and laugh when we tripped. Now, my girlfriends and I wanted to see a show. Always a smarty pants, I had picked one out after reading a magazine article back in the Midwest.
Decades later I realize the agent probably fibbed when he steered me away from the off-Broadway Your Own Thing. No one would want responsibility for sending innocent kids like us to wander the lower East Side at night in search of the Orpheum Theater. He suggested we try a newly opened musical at the Biltmore Theater across the street from our hotel. The tickets cost only eleven dollars. Sounded good.
For my first Broadway show, my mother made me the perfect dress. She chose a swirling mod print of big pink flowers accented in green, yellow, and white. The fabric was a cotton voile. Up-to-the-minute for 1968, the A-line featured a jewel neckline and ended well above my knees. To loosen up the simplicity of the cut, romantic flowing long sleeves ended in cuffs fastened with covered buttons. Using a kit, Mom had pulled a lined circle of the voile over a metal shell, then fit in a metal shanked back. Her work, as always, was meticulous. Each seam in the sheer dress was a French seam with all the raw seam edges enclosed. The dress was almost as pretty inside out as it was right-side out. She created a shell pink sleeveless underdress. With my white tights and the underdress, I kept my modesty.
After dinner, I traipsed off in my new dress with two girlfriends to our first ever Broadway show — Hair, the rock musical. Sheer as my dress was, I wore a lot more than the cast of Hair. As far as theatrical productions, it seemed every expense had been spared in costuming. Only one outfit required a seamstress — the sparkling gold lame worn by three women actors. When first seen on stage, they looked to be clothed like Diana Ross on her first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. The trio leaned in close to the mike, bopped, snapped their fingers, and sang their hearts out. Suddenly, they pulled apart to reveal they were sharing one huge dress. The women continue to sing and dance in the straight cut swath hanging from wide straps on each of their shoulders. The rest of the cast wore the same bell bottom blue jeans and colorful tops as we did back in Ohio. Nothing special there. In the last scene of Act I, they wore even less. Nothing. Full frontal nudity, men and women. We’d never seen that in Ohio.
Hair introduced me, in a rather minimalist way, to costuming. Later, I enjoyed more sumptuous productions. In my mind’s eye, a costumer became an Audrey Hepburn-like hipster who designed on a sketchpad, then draped yards of fabric over a headless linen dress form.
Uh, I was wrong. A recent conversation with Meredith Bean McMath set me straight.
McMath wields a sharp sense of humor, quirky originality, and deep compassion for the underdog. The accoladed playwright, historian, and author founded Run Rabbit Run Theater based in Loudoun County, Virginia. McMath produces, directs, and often costumes her plays and musicals.
Strong unspooled threads extend from McMath to her mother and grandmother. Virginia Hay, her maternal grandmother, owned and operated the Hay School of Fashion in St. Louis from the 1930s to 50s. Hay taught fashion design and creation and won awards for her work. McMath owns exquisite dresses made by her grandmother. Virginia Hay taught her daughter Maxine Bean to sew. Bean starred as a child on a weekly midwestern radio show. Not only did she teach her daughter McMath to sew, she passed on her lifelong love of acting. The mother-daughter duo created costumes, acted, and collaborated up until Maxine Bean’s death a few years ago. Bean also passed on Hay’s dress form, nostalgic fancy gowns, and stash of vintage fabric. McMath lovingly matches the remaining pieces and bolts of her grandmother’s cloth to perfect projects. You can see fabric from her grandmother in McMath’s upholstered chair as sits in the Subaru in this article’s photograph of the playwright.
McMath brings this same attention to detail in her costuming.
“(Costumers) want every character to be unique…costumes will draw them (the audience) even further into the scene. Each of us — we don’t go out in street until we’re wearing something showing us.”
“Every show is completely different.” Does the director want historical accuracy or fantasy pieces? Will this be presented in an intimate dinner theater or on a stage?
First, the costumer measures the actor. Next, they consider the role each actor plays and how color and form can fit the character. Then, a plan is made for building the costumes.
Costumes are “built,” not “made” or “sewn.” Built. Which makes sense as a costume is more than a dress or pants and a shirt. A full costume includes jewelry, accessories like a pipe or crutch. A jabot. Maybe a hat.
“Whether an audience realizes it or not, they fall deeper into a scene if their eye catches detail, or the image seems perfectly real…”
Fantasies can require building in the common sense of the word. For her adaptation of A Christmas Carol, McMath and her brother Lorenzo Bean built a twelve-foot PVC piping framework, draped it with dark fabric, added bicycle light eyes and scared the Dickens out of her audience. Her six-foot seven-inch nephew Lorenzo Lee Bean rose to the occasion and donned the puppet-like structure. McMath finds most actors very easy to work with — except maybe when it comes to corsets. There’s a reason those went out of style. Sweet talking an actor into wearing a corset is one of McMath’s honed skills.)
Once the costumer gains an idea of what’s needed, they then see what’s on hand. Like metal hangers reproducing quietly in closets, production companies accumulate racks and bins of costumes. I’ve been to Meredith Bean McMath’s home. The first thing I ran into was several metal racks of 1940s jitterbug dresses and Army uniforms set between the foyer and living room. McMath moved four years ago and downsized her costume and accessory stash. No longer does she own seventeen racks and over one hundred tubs of accessories and costumes. Today she has seven full racks and eighty-four tubs of ballgowns, military uniforms, hats, scarves, fake jewelry, and such.
Actors may already own clothing suitable for a costume. Costumes can be rented, purchased online, or cobbled together from thrift shop and online auction sites. They also can be built. Most of a costumer’s time is spent adapting pieces. Rather than sew a man’s cutaway coat from a pattern, clever costumers literally “cut away” a man’s long coat to fit the bill (or Bill). Cheap straw hats get decked out and festooned with ribbons and silk flowers. McMath had a lovely blue hat which, after being accidentally squashed, became a great Eliza Doolittle chapeau.
While hobby sewers choose fabric they like, costumers have additional requirements.
“We often don’t realize how much color and shape form audience impressions.” Think about the look of a dance scene with all the women in white and men in black. Compare it with the dresses in pastels or jewel tones. A bold personality can be underlined with a brightly colored outfit. Dark colors can lend an aura of evil, mystery, or threat.
Trompe-l’oeil and patterns are tapped for artistic effect. Straps on overalls may be lined up in a vee to draw the eye in and make an actor appear slim. Broad stripes send a message all the way to the back row of a stage presentation, yet a tiny floral print may only be distinguished in a dinner theater or similar small venue.
An early lesson for costumers is to learn the appearance of fabric under stage lighting. Just as the lights dim and brighten to change the mood, fabrics shine, reflect light, shimmer, or are matte. McMath notes dark velvet looks particularly rich and inexpensive synthetics may “translate” as satin or silk, especially if they’re the right weight
Action and longevity place demands on costumes. Durable fabric helps a costume make it through multiple shows. Snaps and Velcro speed costume changes. Actors in Guys and Dolls grabbed shoulder bows on their tear-away halter dresses to reveal black sequined one-piecers underneath. In her play All for the Union, McMath dressed the Union Army spy Lieutenant Hutchinson in a reversible uniform jacket — Union blue on one side, Confederate grey on the other. Ingenuity and cleverness are the costumer’s friend. For ornate period waistcoats from the 18th century, McMath and her mother found a sari shop in New York City. The sari fabric made elegant waistcoats with the appearance of rich embroidery. White tennis shoes with a black line painted down the front became Pan’s hooves.
Meredith Bean McMath is currently finalizing her next play, a comic murder mystery set in the early 1800s. The Die is Cast, the Cast Must Die centers around a theater company’s costumer caught between love and murder. I’m anticipating Jane Austin-esque gowns, men in hats, ribbons and will be on alert now for costumer’s wizardry.
To read more about costuming, McMath recommends:
Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style by DK Publishing
Costume (Eyewitness Guides) written by L. Rowland-Warne
The National Costumers Association offers industry information on their website.
If you’d like to experience the fun of building theatrical costumes, Meredith Bean McMath is encouraging.
“Anyone can find a place. No one is going to turn them away. They will learn everything they need to know by just raising their hand…Any theater company is dying to have you help them. Just get involved. You will be loved.”