Alumna designs, Students create: Big Love at the CUA costume shop

Julia Cray works on one of the costumes.
Julia Cray works on one of the costumes.

By Maria Rodriguez

The costume shop is buzzing. For every mainstage production, and for some side plays, the Hartke’s in-house costume shop creates costumes and tailors pieces for the performers.

The shop manager, Julie Cray, has been at the helm of costuming of the Drama Department’s production of Big Love by Charles Mee. Cray is in her fifth season of managing the shop; her expertise in personnel management and costume design is well known in the Hartke. Cray has also recently been costume designing some of the CUA productions. Big Love has, because of its unique creative source, has given Cray a lot of creative leeway.

“So the playwright says you can do whatever you want with the work, and it’s all free domain, it’s all on the internet for free and you can cast as many people as you want, as few people as you want, anything” said Cray.

The play is actually based on a classic play by Aeschylus, telling the story of some reluctant brides who turn murderous in their distaste for their prospective husbands. Mee’s play is different, but the thing most different about it is trust Mee has in the creativity of the production team and in the performers of each production.

“But,” says Cray, “in all of his freedom he’s really suggestive in all of his stage description. So when a character comes on stage, he explains what they’re wearing in great, great detail.”

How has this affected Cray’s design?

“So we started by saying, we’re not going to do exactly what he wants, we’re going to do something totally different,” said Cray.

The director, Randy, is “inspired by Asian culture,” says Cray. Randy’s authentically Asian upbringing has given him a unique base from which to draw. Cray says that the director truly strove to make this production look different from all others, given that this director is coming from a background different than most.

“He knows wedding dresses as being red, so we’re going with that. This idea that we’re in a different place, we’re not in America,” said Cray.

There are three featured wedding dresses. One of the red dress is a real showstopper, lacey, beaded, and with a va-va-voom vibe. This dress was made by veteran costume shop seamstress, Maddie Belknap, junior Theater and Musical Theater double major.

“Then he also wanted this ‘overgrown’ look, like the earth is taking over the dresses.The walls are ‘overgrown,’ so the costumes are also overgrown.When the brides first come on they’re being overtaken by the sea…there’s seaweed growth, they look wet.

The white wedding dresses have muddied skirts and “wet” look was done by hand by Selina Donahue, a junior Studio Art major.

At the beginning of the play “they essentially shed their ‘skin’ of this marriage that they’re trying to escape…it’s like they’re in prison,” said Cray.

“Because there’s a lot of blood and a lot of fight choreography, we’re making two versions of every dress to withstand the brutality of tech. We have to go through the whole tech process and then it has to be nice by the time the show opens,” said Cray. That’s a lot of dresses, but the effect is beautiful to see onstage.

“The dresses are typically white because the brides [in white] get covered in this red blood and the contrast is really lovely. But because they’re in red now, when they get covered in blood you won’t see the blood,” said Cray. Not to worry. The grooms have been robed in white tuxes that show the contrast quite well.

Other additions to the show that merit a costume shift is the addition of a four-part chorus. These girls work much the same as a Greek chorus does in classic drama.

“The Chorus plays a really special role telling us [the audience] a lot,” said Cray, “and their costumes also tell us a lot.” The Chorus is robed in jumpsuits, red, and play along with the brides throughout the play. The interconnectivity of the costumes and the actors in the various roles speaks to the audience. Subtlety is not at play here, but then again, that’s not the point.

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