Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Clothes Make the Man


I grew up as much in the design world of the theatre as in the world of acting and performance. My Dad, Don Beaman, was a set designer, and taught scenic design at Boston University for decades (this photo shows him in his early career, fittingly posing on a paint frame).
Much of my youth was spent in paint shops, washing brushes and buckets, helping to size drops, and watching my Dad paint. I also wandered off into costume shops, which to me were magic emporiums, overflowing with feathers and velvets and glitter. Stitchers and drapers would send me off into a corner with scraps of fabric where I would happily play by myself for hours while they went about the work of creating amazing things for actors to wear. Stage struck as I was from as early as I can remember, to me being an actor meant transforming into any character I wished with the help of the right disguise.

When I was in college, Richard Attenborough's film of "Chaplin" came out. There's a scene in it where Robert Downey, Jr. (in a masterful performance) finds the hat, cane, and other accoutrements of the "Little Tramp" character for the first time. To watch this fanciful scene, click here. These simple articles of clothing magically suggest to Chaplin the qualities of what would become one of the most iconic and beloved characters of all time. Costumes have power, and a truly masterful costume designer can be an actor's best ally in creating a memorable performance.

How fortunate we in the Goodspeed production of "Mame" are, then, to be blessed to wear the sumptuous creations of designer Gregg Barnes. Gregg is a Tony Award-winning designer whose credits include "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Legally Blonde," and most recently his glorious creations for "Follies." Gregg is what I would flatteringly refer to as 'old school.' He dazzled all of us at the first day of rehearsal with his collection of hand drawn, painted and bedazzled renderings for Auntie Mame's stunning wardrobe of 17 looks. Gregg's designs have wit, glamour, specificity and he consciously creates each look with an eye toward telling the story of the play through his clothes. In each scene in which Mame appears, her individuality and flamboyance are highlighted by using color and style to contrast with everyone around her. And Gregg's specificity and artistry extend to all of the characters that inhabit the world of "Mame."

A cameo role like Lindsay Woolsey can be, in some ways, more challenging to make specific and memorable than a large role, primarily because there is very little information about him in the script. Of course, the flip side of that challenge is the opportunity to be creative about filling in the blanks with the choices made about how he sounds, moves, and looks. Traditionally, Woolsey is an elegant, well dressed, calm presence in Mame's zany world. Patric Knowles, who created the role in the Broadway production and film of "Auntie Mame" was distinguished, classy, with an understated British charm. While I admire these qualities, for a dynamic, imaginative character actor like me this seemed a bit staid. But I was really at a loss as to how to imbue this small role with something special.

I went in for my consultation with the hair and makeup department for "Mame" sporting a beard (a default look I go to in between roles as I loathe shaving every day) and surprisingly, they thought we should keep it; as the action of the play spans three decades, they will have me use temporary color to darken my hair and beard in the early scenes, washing it out for the Act II scenes, allowing my natural salt and pepper to come through. Then I thought, well, what kind of a gentleman wore a beard in the 1920s, when the predominant look was clean shaven with slicked back, neatly cut hair? The answer-- an 'artistic type,' or a man with a European sensibility. This is where Gregg Barnes stepped in and suggested to me that perhaps the eminent publisher, M. Lindsay Woolsey, is less an understated executive and more of a kind of worldly impresario, with an artistic/European flair. He suggested as a model the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, whose personal style included shoes with spats, rich overcoats with big fur collars, flamboyant hats and luxe accessories.

This was a direction I had not considered going in! In a short conversation, Gregg essentially handed me my character. How fitting that since Vera Charles, the outrageous stage star, is Mame's closest female friend, her closest male friend should be someone equally stylish and artistic? I look forward to my costume fittings with Gregg and his team with great anticipation now, knowing that each element will help me bring Woolsey to life in a vivid and memorable way. Photos of my transformation will of course be included in a future blog post!

1 comment:

  1. Hey there Jamie. I had your Dad at BU - I wonder if you or he could refresh my memory of the annual cycle he used to teach us about design/invention? The idea was that you could look at history and see repetitive patterns, and thus you could look into the future and assume (!) what the pattern would be. Class notes long gone, but still find the idea fascinating.
    Thanks - Jeanne Ahern (also know you thru Cynthia Vasil Plumb)!