When you do theatre in the desert, particularly in Death Valley, you seldom get the chance to get cozy onstage. Not many of our shows are set in winter. And for ease of dressing in the tight quarters backstage, we usually stick to simple costumes with only one or two layers. But for Woman in the Walls, the first show of our 5th anniversary season, we decided to push ourselves and embrace new textures and colors we haven’t really explored in a Master Mystery Production. With our frosty English setting, the costume design can all be summed up in two words: “knit, please!” Come explore the amazing costumes for Woman in the Walls, our 26th Master Mystery Production!
KNIT, PLEASE!: The Making of Woman in the Walls (Part 3)
Skeleton Key Award Winner, Beth Sparks-Jacques, who championed amazing period costume work for both Exit Prima Donna (where she won the award) and What Happens at Sundown, returns to MMP in both the role of lovable heiress, Lucy, and as the Costume Designer for Woman in the Walls. Beth’s closet is a period costumer’s dream with exquisite pieces of fashion from all sorts of eras. With her experience working and performing in the 1930’s landscape of CLOTA’s The 39 Steps in 2019, she was the perfect choice to lead the costuming on this production. And boy, did she deliver!
It’s the first show we’ve done with a foot in two disparate eras. Much of the play is set in December 1930 in the decrepit Victorian mansion-for-rent, Hamilton House, in the snowbound village of Hamilton Park, England. But we also have ghostly flashbacks to the 1890’s and a Victorian spirit drifting through the haunted halls. We wanted this stark visual contrast between the eras, so audiences were very clear who was a flashback character and who was from the present. Our director, Daniel Stallings, gave two very broad costuming briefs for the two eras, which Beth played with to deliver stunning designs.
For the 1930’s characters, the brief was two-fold: rich, warm, earthy tones and knitwear. Knits everywhere. After all, the play is set in winter during a snowstorm. We wanted sweaters, cardigans, jackets, and coats. But don’t think for a moment that the color palette is all beige and brown. While anchored with brown as the neutral, many more colors emerged from the landscape. Forest greens. Sunset gold. Rust orange. Wine country purple. All sorts of beautiful shades that were deeper, richer, and warmer than the pop or jewel colors we used in the past. Many of the pieces Beth selected for the show were vintage or vintage reproductions, and she was very thoughtful in her designs for Woman in the Walls, coordinating everything from hats and gloves and shoes to fit with the characters in terms of background, socioeconomic status, time period, and personal style. For instance, costume pieces selected for the impoverished Grace (played by Lexi Phillips, who helped select and donated pieces for Grace’s wardrobe) were more threadbare and used and worn in places to emphasize the idea of her financial standings, while the wealthy Lucy is in chocolate faux fur, regal purple, a silky blouse, fashionable cloche hat, and laden with pearls selected by Jewelry Curator Tiffany Cheney.
And let’s not forget texture. Working with knitwear allowed us to explore texture in a wonderful way. Each costume is built of a series of layers that get removed as the show progresses and the characters get more comfortable. So the 1930’s characters each have a base costume (shirt, dress, skirt, trousers, etc.), a sweater or cardigan layer, and a coat or jacket. These multiple layers create visual interest and enhances the authenticity of the winter setting. The gorgeous knits in the show are varied in color, pattern, and pile. No two knits are alike. Some are thick with very pronounced stitches. Others are thinner, more seamless. We’ve embraced cable knit, floral, lace, faux fur, check, and plaid, mixed beautifully onstage to create this warm, comfortable, and cozy feeling. The interplay of pattern and texture with this unique color scheme makes it one of the director’s favorite costume schemes.
For the characters from the 1890’s, the brief was even more pared down: whites, grays, and silvers. This snowy palette helps distinguish the Victorian flashback characters from the warmer, livelier ones of the 1930’s. This helps them further stand out like ghosts against the colorful backdrop of Amargosa Opera House. The director had one further stipulation–a long white nightgown for Claire, the ghost of Hamilton House. Inspired by classical Lady in White descriptions of famous ghosts, the nightgown would be long and flowing with a weighted hem to allow the gown to trail behind the actress to gorgeous, haunting effect. MMP Hall of Fame Artist and legendary costumer, Margit Stallings, was responsible for sourcing Claire’s signature nightgown paired with a sheer, flowing robe trimmed in delicate lace and ribbon, giving our actress a gauzy, ghostly aura around her. For Claire’s husband, Dr. John Forsythe, we went for a silver suit contrasted with a classic white shirt. Both Claire and John are in their private residence during the show. Their costumes are more informal than traditional Victorian day wear. John chooses not to wear a jacket while ministering to his wife during her rest cure. Again, texture plays an important part to provide visual interest with such a monochromatic palette. Textured pin tucks down the front on John’s shirt provide a very classically Victorian effect while his bow tie is subtly patterned in paisley. And Claire will have a white kitted shawl, echoing the knits seen in the 1930’s characters.
Woman in the Walls provides unique and beautiful opportunities for costuming that steps away from the showiness of formal wear and steps into the world of separates and sportswear while holding on to our trademark glamour. Beth’s design scheme is masterful and reminds us of instant classics like Margit Stallings’ Eat Cake confections or Cat Kreidt’s exquisite rainbow in Foul Play. We love all the gorgeous clothes in this show and can’t wait to see them come alive on the Amargosa Opera House stage.
The characters may look cozy and comfy, but when they see what we have planned for the specters that haunt these drawing room walls, their hair is sure to stand on end. We have the best makeup artist in the area designing spooky signature looks for our MMP shows, so let’s have a chat with her to see what frightening faces she has in mind in our next beyond-the-veil blog post: Haunting Faces: The Making of Woman in the Walls (Part 4).
–Master Mystery Productions