With Princeton Festival’s extravaganza underway, costume designer Marie Miller’s work is visible in two musical-theater presentations: Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” at the Matthews Acting Studio, and ” Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” at McCarter Theater. A recent playbill playfully notes that Miller, a seamstress, “has kept the Festival in stitches since 2005,” its first year.
In a telephone interview Miller talks about how she handles the touchy task of costuming for both vehicles. About “A Funny Thing Happened…” she says, “185 Nassau is tiny, and we need to make quick changes. There’s no way the audience couldn’t notice the off-stage costume changes. Changing clothes is a distraction for the actors; it’s not fun for them. I want to keep the visible parts minimal. Whatever is seen should be part of the fun for people watching.”
The costume master takes U.S. 1 behind the scenes and points out how a kimono in real life differs from Madame Butterfly’s kimono on stage at the Princeton Festival this year. “Butterfly will wear traditional Japanese dress dating from about 1904,” she says. “It’s particularly complex to present the kimono at the proper length. In real life the kimono is not hemmed. Instead, it is folded appropriately. For the opera, we have devised an elaborate underpinning system to make the kimono actor-proof.”
Frequently, Miller rents costumes for productions where she is in charge, rather than creating them afresh. She relies on five or six sources. “I like to rent costumes,” she candidly states. Her preferred source is A. T. Jones in Baltimore.
Miller’s strategy for costume design begins with what she calls a concept. “I work out the details with the director;” she says. “It’s collaborative. I consider the overall look. Color-coding is one way of getting the point across. You have to support and enhance what’s happening on stage; all the details have to be checked out meticulously.”
Those watching are constantly in Miller’s mind. “The audience only gets one shot at a production,” she says. “You need to make sure that they are as unconfused as possible.”
As a costume designer, Miller typically works with a costume manager. “The costume manager is like a stage manager for the piece,” she says. “Costume managers coordinate, and they look after subtle nuances. They consider staff, time, and financial factors. The costume designer usually leaves after the opening, and the manager takes care of the rest. She returns all the things borrowed for the production after they’ve been laundered and stored. She pays the bills. It’s a little bit lacking in glamour. If it’s not done well, it will wreck further borrowing possibilities.
“The costume manager is a kind of Mom-of-the-Family job. She is into organization, anticipating problems, and solving them before they happen.”
Costumes are a team effort, Miller believes. Her assistant is Carole Braun, her niece. “She’s more than my assistant,” Miller says. “We do it as a partnership. I lead the design aspects. When costumes come into the shop, Carole takes over and keeps track of everything — every last little piece of lace and the pin that holds it in place. She sees that every item is labeled and devises a way to keep track of it. She makes sure that the daily laundry is done; there are probably three or four loads of laundry after each performance and dress rehearsal.”
Miller’s staff also includes her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. “We seem to have turned into a theatrical family,” she says. Her granddaughter, Alix, who interviewed her for a college course at Canada’s University of British Columbia, is the archivist for many of Miller’s insights.
The longer a show runs the greater the challenge, Miller finds. “Repairs or maintenance are more difficult with longer runs. Things get torn, stuff gets spilled on costumes, and clothing eventually wears out. You can use something very diaphanous or fragile if there are not many performances.”
The design process differs with very large and very small casts. “With very large casts, many people are often onstage together, so it’s an opportunity to ‘paint with people.’ They almost become a scenic element, so color is usually more important than strict period detail. With a small cast, detail and accessories are very important. Each character needs definition and visual separation from the others, whereas groups often need to blend together. Furthermore, the major characters have to be treated as if they were a separate small cast.”
In her costume management, Miller mimics the dress rehearsal that precedes a theatrical show. She insists on a rehearsal where actors practice the costume changes and the required choreography. She schedules the costume dress rehearsal before the theatrical dress rehearsal takes place.
Miller recalls more than one triumph in her costuming career. “In one production where I was involved, two characters that resembled each other were played by the same person wearing different costumes. As the play went on, the time for changing costumes gradually decreased. The final switch took place when the actor walked off stage wearing one costume, and walked back on wearing another. We succeeded! It was fun to work out.”
Another victory occurs to her: “I once made a woman go from three months pregnant to nine months pregnant on stage in half light during a scene change.”
Asked to choose her most favorite part of costume design, Miller says, “I like the entire process — research, creating a design, figuring out how best to construct it, constructing it (if I have to), seeing how it all comes together on stage, then basking in the afterglow of a successful show while cleaning it up.”
As for her least favorite aspects, she is equally specific: “negotiating my contract, doing the accounting after the show, and checking to make sure my suppliers are paid in a timely fashion.”
The dress of historical periods intrigues Miller. “I can’t identify a historical period unless I know what people are wearing,” she admits. And she uses various sources to satisfy her curiosity.
“There are lots of books with photos of different eras. Also, artistic masters capture the dress of their era, so I spend time in art museums. I like to watch period movies, ones that show the dress of their time. I’m not interested in recent costuming of previous periods.”
Miller denies being what she calls “a traditional trained designer.” She avoids making sketches. When directors ask for a sketch, she tends to show them the costume. “I only use a sketch when there’s no alternative,” she says.
Miller fell into costume design. An actress, she met her husband, Bernard Miller, a physical chemist active as a director, through summer theater. In 1961 she was pregnant and didn’t want to do the role he offered, so she asked if she could do the costumes. He agreed. “I had always done some costuming before, but not an entire show,” she says.
One of Miller’s favorite projects is not, strictly, a costume in the ordinary sense. She happily designed and built a 60-foot-long Chinese dragon with a tiger head for Princeton University’s Class of 1970. The body of the beast, whose length can be altered to fit the number of alumni occupying it, consists of black stripes with large orange polka dots alternating with orange stripes.
A Skillman resident, Miller, now beyond retirement age, was an only child, born in Orange, New Jersey. She grew up in Ridgewood and traveled a lot as a child because her father was in the Army. According to Miller, he became a salesman of dyestuffs for fabrics and was particularly gifted at solving technical problems. Miller’s mother was a stay-at-home mom.
Miller chose to attend Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College because of its beautiful campus. Her major was chemistry. She moved to Washington, D.C. after her marriage. Her husband died in 2001.
The couple has two sons, Jonathan and Joshua, both of whom majored in chemistry at Swarthmore. Chemistry seems to be hereditary, though Jonathan has become a lawyer.
Miller offers a practical chunk of advice for anyone interested in becoming a costume designer: “Have another profession or way of making a living to fall back on when times are tough.”
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Princeton Festival, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Through July 1.
Madama Butterfly, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sundays June 24 and July 1, 3 p.m. 609-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org