Looks, as they say, can be deceiving, and to look at costume designer Marcia Zammarelli it would be hard to guess that she is a sophisticated and well-respected professional of the theatre. These days, she looks affably industrious as she moves around the costume shop for Theatre by the Sea, checking out the progress of the seamstresses or busily putting some final touch on an over the top hat for the upcoming production of La Cage aux Folles in Matunuck.
“This is what we would call a ‘costume intensive’ production,” said Zammarelli. “There are five different outfits for each of the dancers in the club. We even have to make drag costumes for the family, so they can sneak out of the club.”
In case you haven’t heard, La Cage aux Folles centers on a St. Tropez drag-show nightclub owned by Georges and headlined by his longtime love, Albin. The couple raised Georges’ son, who was the consequence of a long-ago dalliance with a woman. The situation becomes complicated for Georges, Albin and their son Jean-Michel, when the boy falls in love with the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician who has made a specialty of posing as a family values candidate.
Under the circumstances, Georges and Albin believe they should present themselves as a straight family. Of course, the deception is doomed to fail, but the complications that ensue made the original movie an international comedic success. Gender bending has always been good for a laugh. Look at how many Shakespeare works revolve around girls dressed as boys or boys pretending to be Charlie’s Aunt and the whole career of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Although the original movie had elaborate and convincingly glitzy costumes and décor, a scaled down version for a venue like Theatre By The Sea simply couldn’t afford to buy all those clothes. That’s where the ingenuity of the costume designer comes in. It’s Zammarelli’s job to come up with convincingly beautiful costumes that will hold up for the length of the production but won’t push the producers into chapter seven bankruptcy.
“The costumes have to be professional quality because they have to last beyond the run of the play,” she said,
Zammarelli explained that the costumes for their productions have a life after the show closes. They are used for future productions or other locations, or they are rented out to community theaters that need good costumes but cannot afford to hire someone like Zammarelli. And hiring is like buying yourself a lifetime of devoted and passionate work in the theatre and like having the world of the theatre at your fingertips.
“When I was a girl I went to see Auntie Mame and it changed my life,” she said. “The house lights when down, the stage lights came up and there was this little boy on the stage…Why was he there? What’s this about? Then the show started…and I was hooked.”
Zammarelli said she inherited her love of sewing from her mother, and when she learned that she could combine a love of sewing with a passion for the make-believe world of the theatre, she enrolled at Rhode Island College and began the process of learning how to make costumes for the theatre. After college, she went to work as an assistant costume designer at Trinity Rep and then went on to New York, where she worked with John Houseman’s Acting Company and the likes of Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone.
“We did a lot of classics at the Acting Company, which was great experience for me,” she said.
She also did the costumes for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which is all heady stuff for an aspiring costume designer, but she fully admits she missed Rhode Island.
“I grew up in Cranston and I wanted to come home,” she said, knowing that there wouldn’t be as much work for a costume designer in Rhode Island. “Fortunately, Trinity wanted me back, and then I began teaching at Rhode Island College.”
When she heard that the revitalized Theatre By the Sea, under Bill Haney, wanted a costume designer, she applied and got the job, which is a big deal if you know how the business of the theatre works.
The costume designer does a lot more than just designing and sewing clothes. She has to be a part of the creative team, along with stage designers, directors and producers. The costume designer looks specifically at the characters, the characters' actions, how the characters change through the play, the times and locations of the play, and the style of the play. Once designs have been approved, Zammarelli goes about gathering the materials she will need to make the costumes.
“The Internet has changed the way I work,” said Zammarelli. “I used to have to go around looking for material, catalogs and other sources. Now I can go online, find what I want and it is on the way to the costume shop. It saves a lot of time.”
The costume designer does not usually build or buy the costumes, but by necessity or simply the love of working with needles and thread, Zammarelli is a hands-on designer and does a lot of sewing herself.
“Sometimes we have things custom made in Hong Kong, but we do most of the work ourselves,” said Zammarelli. “I have four full-time and two part-time wardrobe people, but I love to sew myself. That’s something I got from my mother and aunts.”
Zammarelli said the first thing she does is some sketches for the director.
“Planning starts in February [for summer shows],” she said, “when we start research. Then by April, we have sketches and we meet to talk about them, make some changes and then the real work starts in May.”
Zammarelli was still working on the costumes on Saturday, but it looked like everything will be done on time. The women in the shop were busy sewing as the dancers upstairs from the shop made huge thumping noises and engaged in some vigorous yelling and singing.
Which brought us back to the production itself. Is it one that Zammarelli enjoys working on? Very much so.
“It’s a wonderful story,” she said. “They are a couple having a crisis with their son. Everyone can relate to that. It’s a big, noisy show, but there are many scenes, quiet scenes that you reflect on, mostly the message that you have to be yourself, no matter who you are. The song, ‘I Am What I Am,’ is all about that.”
So far, the costumes look great, and one wonders if Zammarelli feels cheated out of all the credit that goes to actors, directors and even set designers before it comes down to her. Having the respect of her fellow theatre professionals is plenty, but she admits she still likes to hear from the audience every now and then.
“When I hear people talking as they leave the theatre and say, ‘Weren’t those costumes wonderful?’ I do enjoy hearing that.”
For information about tickets and times, call 782-8587 or visit www.theatrebtthesea.biz