“Oh, she’s NOT a pretty girl!”

Look at how gorgeous Barbara Bell‘s rendering is!

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This is Barbara’s design of my costume for Boston Marriage, directed by Terence Lamude, at Capital Repertory Theatre, back in 2009. I played Catherine, the Scottish maid–a lonely outsider trying to navigate a new household filled with the intrigues of seduction, counter-seduction, and duplicity, all at the heart of David Mamet’s plot. She’s also the funniest thing in the show, in my opinion, serving up real master/servant comic gold.

Barbara, a brilliant and gifted costume designer, had never met me when she designed the costume. (I say this to relieve her of any feelings of culpability this post may arouse.) Looking at the eerily accurate sketch of my own quirky face, I instantly knew two things about Catherine when I saw Barbara’s design: she doesn’t know how to fit in, and oh, she’s NOT a pretty girl.

She’s doesn’t fit in, and, man, would she try! Sure, Barbara’s ideas for Catherine’s costume included the tartan plaid, a nod to Catherine’s Orkney Islands upbringing (Tirza Chappelle Fogle created the blouse, which fit me like a glove and aligned every single line in the pattern. Exquisite work!), but Barbara also insisted that none of the proportions were quite to scale: the cap was a bit too small, the sleeves just a tad too big, the skirt too short, the apron bow too wide. This lack of proportion set off inspiration fireworks in me, and I instantly knew I would match my acting style to Barbara’s vision. My Catherine would do anything to fit in…and she would fail, and fail, and fail. I could have danced as I imagined all the ways I would find to keep trying and failing.

(Feeling all this instant insight reminds me of what Keith Johnstone wrote about Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp “mask”–his tight vest, silly bowler, etc. When he put it all on, Chaplin, according to Johnstone, instantly knew who the Tramp was and how he would operate in the world. Putting on Barbara’s costume was like downloading a fully-created character into my head, heart, body, and face.)

The second instant insight I had was the more important: She is NOT a pretty girl. Catherine, I knew immediately, had never gotten anywhere on her looks. She’s survived because she was a hard worker, super friendly, and extremely adaptable. She made people laugh. She tried to be helpful. At a few points in the play, Catherine is distracted off-stage by the unseen “stove mechanic,” and I knew that my lonely Catherine was back there doing anything she could to seduce him. Like her onstage efforts to fit in with her new boss, she would fail offstage with the hunky stove mechanic, but in the attempt, she did earned some well-placed sooty handprints all over her white apron bib. I gleefully claim those details as my ideas, but they sprang from Barbara’s sketch and my realization that Catherine was NOT a pretty girl.

Now, please know this about me: I’M NOT, EITHER. [I’m not looking for compliments here, folks. So DO resist the urge to contradict me from a misplaced sense of protection or loyalty. I’m looking at you, sweet hubby.] Growing up, my sisters were “pretty,” and I was “smart.” (This was a huge disservice to my sisters, both of whom are both smart and clever, with wit and more common sense than I ever had. They are ALSO beautiful.) As a teen, I had some feelings about these adjectives. For a while, they hurt. For too long, they directed my choices–for good or for ill. Thankfully, I’ve grown accustomed to my face since then.

Imagine, if you will, how freeing it was to embrace Catherine’s homeliness, her lack of proportion, and the active need she felt to compensate. I was playful, without a shred of self-consciousness.

Boston Marriage

All my work was ignited by the brilliance of Barbara Bell. Costume designers who are artists, such as Barbara, not only help tell the story of the play, they co-create the work of the actors. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to have worked with some of the best.

All these memories sprang to mind recently (no, not because yesterday was Halloween–okay, only sort of because of that) when I saw some emerging sketches of the costume designer already at work on my next project, Susanne Bradbeer’s incredible new play, Naked Influence. (Awesome stuff! Just you wait!) Set primarily in a strip club outside Washington DC, the play explores the life of a stripper trying to leave her dance career behind. I play her sister. Also at Capital Repertory Theatre, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill.

In a show filled with drop dead sexy clothing, guess who’s wearing a cardigan? Lucky, playful me!

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