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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Behind the Scenes—There’s something about Mary Lou

By David Hsieh

Mary Lou Houston, BAM's wardrobe supervisor, is retiring after 20 years. Photo: Ben Katz

Mary Lou Houston started working in the theater on a fluke. It was in 1975 and she was in San Francisco, trying to open a restaurant. “A friend of mine who was working for the San Francisco Opera knew I could sew and told me the company needed someone in the costume shop. I went in for what I thought was an interview. Instead, they immediately sat me at the sewing machine, making alterations,” said Mary Lou, BAM’s wardrobe supervisor.

The sideline turned out to be very useful when the restaurant business did not pan out. So instead of spatulas and ladles, she waved scissors and needles; instead of carrots, lemongrass, and salmon, she arranged satin, sequins, and buttons. When BAM came calling in 1995, she had 20 years of experience working opera, ballet, American Conservatory Theater, touring houses in San Francisco, toured herself nationally, and worked New York theater. By then she was living in Prospect Heights and was happy to walk to work.  

Fast-forward 20 years: Mary Lou Houston will retire at the end of this season. Sitting in her sun-filled workroom in the Peter Jay Sharp Building, where the Howard Gilman Opera House is located (“Probably the best wardrobe room in New York—all these windows!”), she recalled the tens of thousands of costumes that passed through her hands and revealed a few tricks for those of us who treat a trip to the laundromat as the pinnacle of clothing care...

What is the difference between a costume job and a wardrobe job in the theater world?

A costume job is usually with a designer in a costume shop. Once the actors and the costumes come into the theater for rehearsal, wardrobe takes over. (People in that capacity are called wardrobe assistants, wardrobers, or, more traditionally, dressers.) We then have to find out if the costumes allow the performer to do what they need to do, and start to make necessary changes if they don’t. We also work out the changes that they need to go through during the run of the performances. Then there's the maintaining, repairing, cleaning, and laundering.

People in wardrobe are more practically oriented. I never considered myself an artist. I’m more about: How does this work or how do I make it work if it doesn’t? I’m not bothered by the repetitive nature of the job: laundering, ironing, pressing, and repairing. 

Many visiting companies showed their appreciation with 
t-shirts, which Mary Lou Houston has kept. Photo: David Hsieh
What are the unique challenges of working at BAM?

BAM is primarily a presenter. When a show comes in, the costumes have already been made. We meet the visiting wardrobe colleagues. We unpack the costumes. We prep them. We begin to organize what’s needed and where it’s needed. We work the rehearsals with the actors and find out when the costume changes are and what our roles are for this particular production backstage during the performances. The next day we do the laundry and repairs and prep the next performance.

We’re part of that huge backstage team. Running around with costumes. Making sure the right costume gets to the right place at the right time. Going into the dressing room and listening to the complaints and problems of the actors.

How many people work in the BAM wardrobe department? 

When we need a second supervisor because we have two shows running at the same time, I have often called on help from Zinda Williams. Some of the people who have worked with me over the last season are Linda Simpkins, Maryann Towne, Dean Nichols, Vernon Ross, Paul Drost, Liz Goodrum, Monika Bellucci, Fetteroff Colen, Dennis Birchall, Mark Klein, Fran Myer, Angie Finn, Jennifer Arnold. They are great. I’ll miss working with them.

How are costumes cleaned?

“Body contact” clothes are usually laundered after use. Dancewear is almost always laundered. Sometimes costumes are made that are not meant to be laundered and that poses another challenge: How to deodorize them. (Trick #1: Vodka is a dresser’s best friend.)

Through experience and knowledge accumulated you learn how to deal with different kinds of materials. A good company will also have some knowledge. Then there's common sense: You do testing if something looks suspicious. You wash the same family of colors together.

In the just-concluded Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s last engagement, they danced a world premiere of My Generation by Richard Segal. The costumes designed by Bernhard Willhelm seemed to be a crossbreed of military and disco. Those probably can’t be washed, right? 

No. We sprayed vodka on them and combed the fringes!

The fringe in question on Cedar Lake's Matthew Rich. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

What other BAM shows that are particularly challenging for you?

Any show that has blood is always challenging. (Trick #2: You start to get as much blood out as possible the moment the costumes are off.) King Lear in that sense is particularly brutal—a combination of blood, mud, and rain!

In Abbey Theatre’s John Gabriel Borkman (2011 Winter/Spring) it was the constant snow. It had to be brushed out of the wool overcoats, shawls, and hats. After vigorously doing that motion a couple of hours a day for more than eight weeks, my arm rebelled!

In Toneelgroep’s Cries and Whispers (2011 Next Wave), the actors threw blue paint all over the set and costumes. Because of some unanticipated custom restriction they couldn’t bring in the paint they usually used. So they bought paint here, which didn’t come off the costumes. So day by day we watched the costumes turned blue. Luckily the director wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

What role does a dresser play in putting on a successful show? 

The wardrobe people are deeply involved with the actors. We’re the ones putting something on their bodies. Some of them think nothing about it. They just want it to be comfortable. They want to be able to do anything they want to do or whatever the directors or choreographers want them to do on stage. For others it’s more an emotional, psychological thing. If they don’t like how they look in a costume it can be difficult for them. And sometimes they have their own idea of how a character should look.

For a dresser there’s a certain amount of psychology involved in dealing with these various scenarios. You go into a person’s dressing room; You see them in all sorts of states of dressing and undressing; then you have to hear their comments about the performance. Dealing with their problems and trying to understand what they really mean when they say “This doesn’t fit right,” when you’ve done everything you can but they keep complaining. Then you found out they never liked that costume or they didn’t like that performance. Some people are needier than others. It’s a matter of keeping everyone happy and calm.

What’s your future plan?

I intend to stay in New York. I think it’s a great place for people to retire. I want to take advantage of all the theater and entertainment!

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM and the US correspondent of Opera China.

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