Sometimes the little life details come together, and everything just clicks. It was one such moment when Marley Boone, Delaware Valley Opera Company’s new costume designer, discovered her calling.
Marley didn’t start out with costume design in mind; she was studying to be an actor. (She can be seen on regional stages with companies such as Stagecrafters and Act II Playhouse.) So it came as a surprise during her freshman year at Michigan State University when a required core course lead to an “ah-ha!” moment.
Every MSU student working toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree was required to take a design class. Set design, lighting, and costuming were among the choices. Marley’s grandmother was a seamstress who had taught Marley how to attach buttons and other basic skills, so costume design seemed a like a good choice. “It clicked in my head very quickly.” She asked for a sewing machine that Christmas.
Soon she was working in the costume shop and designing for student main stage productions. By her junior year, Marley decided that Philadelphia’s active and diverse theater scene would be her next step. She landed an internship with the Arden Theater and moved to the East Coast.
Quick thinking and a creative eye are essentials for a costume designer. But the overall vision of the director must come first, Marley said.
“The first consideration in designing a show is the director’s concept. I could design something awesome but if it doesn’t fit the director’s concept, it doesn’t matter if it’s good. And the costume design blends with the other design elements. If the lighting has lots of crazy colors, then you don’t make the costumes with wild patterns. It’s collaborative.”
With the director’s concept in mind, Marley can pull on her experience as an actor, dancer and stage combatant (she’s trained in the quarter staff, rapier and dagger to name a few of the weapons in her arsenal) to create the right look without sacrificing the performers’ mobility.
This combination of creativity and theater experience fused together while she was creating costumes for the New Freedom Theater’s Black Nativity in 2016. There were three actors playing the Angel Gabriel simultaneously, she said. Each needed a pair of wings they could move in that could be easily attached to their costume during a quick lighting change.
“It needed to be a big reveal. I didn’t want the stereotypical white wings,” she said. She decided to draw on the production’s focus on African American culture and African pride. “I thought, what if I made them colorful, from African fabrics.”
A few snare drum harnesses, several yards of buckram, hundreds of foot-long strips of fabric, and a few copper pipes later (not to mention 40 or so hours of work) and the three- foot by three-foot wings were ready to go! (See the photo below!)
Not every production requires such creative lengths, but every job has its hidden challenges. Sometimes the challenge can just be getting a foot in the door, especially when you are a new graduate building your resume. When Marley learned in late 2017 that DVOC was looking for a new costumer designer for their January 2018 production of Amahl and the Night Visitors she knew her young age and inexperience in opera costume design could be strikes against her, but decided to take the risk and apply. She was thrilled to learn that DVOC makes it a mission to give opportunities to young, rising talent. The Amahl production staff hired her for that production, and for the 2018 Summer Opera Festival.
“They give young a chance, and I thought that was so cool. I saw a lot of young people at that production meeting. Some theater companies only use veteran designers or actors they know. It can feel like you will never get your foot in the door, and DVOC is literally there for people to get their foot in the door, which is so awesome.”
Costuming the cast and chorus of three fully staged operas in just a few months is a daunting task, but Marley is excited by the challenge. She has four different time periods and four countries to convey through costumes: L’Elisir d’Amore is late 19th century Italy, Suor Angelica is set in 1920s America, Il Tabarro is 18th century Paris, and Faust is 16th century Germany. She described how each nation and each century has it’s own corset silhouette, military attire, children’s clothing and everything in between. It is possible that no one in the audience would notice if the wrong corset shape was used, but Marley would know! “I’m very detail-oriented. I don’t want my work to be incorrect.”
Detail is important, but so is time. Fortunately, she won’t have to construct every costume from scratch. She will be able to pull from DVOC’s costume stores as a starting point and add details or construct new pieces as she needs them.
“I’m a hard worker. I just get it done. I’ve stayed up in the past until 3am to finish a project. This is a lot. But I told myself, you’re gonna do this, and you’re gonna do this well.”