Broadway Designer Merrie Whitney to Design for FSPA's Production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
"To spend my days inspired is very rewarding," says costume designer Merrie Whitney, of Franklin. Whitney is reflecting on her role as costumer for Franklin Performing Arts Company (FPAC) and Franklin School for the Performing Arts (FSPA). The position marks a return to costume design after a decade-long hiatus as stay-at-home mom to Wyatt, 11, and Johanna, 9.
Merrie's interest in theater grew in high school, where she was initially drawn to scenic design. Pursuing the craft at Texas State University, Merrie ultimately made the switch to costume design. "It was where I was happiest," she says. "I like the finer details of sewing."
After earning her BFA in Theater (Design), Merrie moved to New York City, where she made costumes for many Broadway shows, including Grease, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Cats!, and was a television wardrobe stylist. She worked on set for the television shows Barney and Walker, Texas Ranger in Dallas, and was a staff costumer at Houston's Alley Theater, where she made costumes for many plays, including The Glass Menagerie and Civil War.
As a member of FSPA's creative team, Merrie is currently costuming the school's upcoming production of the hit family musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to be presented on Saturday, February 8, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the New England Chapel, 40 Kenwood Circle, in Franklin. Based on the biblical Joseph story, the colorful Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical is a costumer's dream. "Joseph's coat is an iconic costume piece," Merrie notes. "As a costume designer, it's something I hoped I'd have the opportunity to create, and the idea has been in my head for a long time. I was so excited when I learned FSPA would be doing Joseph!"
Merrie started drawing her idea for the coat in the fall, and she picked up pieces of fabric, including the rainbow-colored lining. Her vision for the fanciful garment incorporates symbols of Joseph's story, along with biblical images such as the tree of knowledge. In fashioning the leaves for the tree, which are appliquéd and outlined in dark thread and paint, Merrie drew inspiration from liturgical art and the vibrancy of staiNed Glass. She also pulled that idea into the background colors and the side panels, where the stars shine brightly against the dark sky.
Merrie is drawn to such details for each character sketch and costume, and she spends time matching color and types of fabric before layering on the trim. She enthuses that Joseph provides a fantastic and fun opportunity to add on layers of sparkle. She enjoys making each pattern and finding her inspiration through research. Merrie uses the Internet, searching relevant images, and makes Pinterest pages for every production, where she can store pictures on virtual boards for each character. For Joseph, Merrie searched historical images of Egypt and Israel. She enjoys pairing her love of history with craft, and listens to iTunes historical lectures, whether biblical history for Joseph or French history for LES MISERABLES. But, she notes, the fun of costuming a show like Joseph is that there is more freedom and less imperative to follow historical guidelines closely.
The pace of FPAC and FSPA productions is brisk, with a robust calendar of performances, so Merrie's work on a new show begins before closing out another production. Merrie conceived costumes for FPAC's LES MISERABLES, which opened the company's 23rd season in October, while producing pieces for FSPA's SummerStage 2013 production of Shrek the Musical at Showcase Live. Her work to prepare FPAC's The Nutcracker and Carol's Christmas for the stage was in process when initial sketches for Joseph were drawn. Next up for FSPA is the school's Ballet Conservatory performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, to be performed in collaboration with the Metrowest Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Peter Cokkinias on March 9.
Merrie finds the challenge comes in balancing her roles. As a stay-at-home mom working from the house, it can be difficult to find the time to design and craft, she notes, and production tech weeks and show weekends are exceedingly busy. However, she's learned to coordinate her time, and the rewards far outweigh the difficulties. "I feel like my world suddenly expanded," she says. "FSPA and FPAC are such nice communities."
They are communities Merrie shares with her children, who are students at FSPA and also FPAC cast members. Being part of the same show and experiencing the creative process together, Merrie notes, "I feel very lucky to work on something I enjoy in a place where my kids are doing something they enjoy."
An added sense of gratification comes from having a hand in the way a show is experienced by both actors and audiences. "It's very rewarding to have a creative role and to have something to show for my work that other people can enjoy," Merrie describes. "When actors put on a garment I've designed, it becomes very special. They bring it to life. If I can make a costume that helps an actor develop his or her character, then I've done my job."
Fortunately, FPAC is a community organization supported by a large group of dedicated volunteers (more than 160 volunteers assisted with the company's holiday productions). There is a small circle of volunteers who help Merrie with the sewing. Others contribute by getting costumes ready for the stage, whether through fitting, steaming, labeling by cast member and character, or helping to costume children backstage during performances. Merrie would like to launch a pre-show sewing circle or "Sewing Saturdays" to further engage and build a community around this theater art.
Merrie's plans also include the development of a costume department where FSPA and FPAC can properly organize and store costumes so they are well cared for and available for rent by other community theaters. The costume inventory goes back two decades, so it is no small task to photograph, inventory and catalogue all the garments. FPAC will have expanded storage space for costumes at THE BLACK BOX, the company's new home and flexible performance and event space in downtown Franklin, and that will facilitate the process. "I like the idea of costumes being useful to another theater group, another community," Merrie says.
For more information or to purchase tickets for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat visit www.fspaonline.com.