By Katherine Griswold, Marketing Coordinator
Vibrant, bold, strong, optimistic - Mame is truly a one-of-a-kind character worthy of one of the best costume designers in the business. And Tony Award-winner Gregg Barnes is certainly the man for the job. With Broadway credits that include Follies, Elf, Bye Bye Birdie, Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone (for which he won the Tony), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Side Show, there’s no doubt that Barnes’ designs can match Mame’s larger-than-life personality. Not to mention the enormous number of costumes needed to produce the show.
So how does a designer wrap his head around a production with 175 costumes spanning across three decades? First and foremost is research. For Mame, Barnes studied architecture, textiles, dress making, film costume, society pages and jewelry from the 1920s to 1940s. “Part of the fun is seeing these decades and the fashions they inspired play out before our eyes,” remarks Barnes. “I try to use many diverse inspirations when I am sorting out the research.”
But Barnes isn’t starting completely from scratch with Goodspeed’s Mame. While the production will feature new designs, Gregg Barnes has a great foundation on which to rely, having created the costumes for The Kennedy Center’s production of Mame in 2006. “Mame is a huge undertaking in so many ways and having been through it I know what a blessing it is to have a place to start!” And he’s not exaggerating – with 17 costumes for Mame alone, Barnes believes that she has more costume changes than any other leading character in a musical. (Barnes’ designs for Elle in Legally Blonde are a close second at 16 changes.)
As far as inspiration goes, Barnes explains, “You want to have a big idea to begin with. Something that aides in the storytelling, has wit and a point of view. It narrows the field when going through the endless research files. In the case of Mame, part of the job is to make sure the focus is always on the lady with the bugle! In the spectacular world of the play and with all of the crazy characters we meet, we never want to lose sight of the heart of the story. In many ways I try to put myself in Patrick’s eyes and give a sense of how Mame’s world would look and feel to a child.”
The character of Mame is defined as much by her words and actions as by her costumes. According to Barnes, “Mame is an original and that is the essential character trait that has to be defined.” Barnes takes his cues not only from the script, but from the actress – in this case, the Tony nominated Louise Pitre. About a month before rehearsals started, Barnes and Pitre spent two exhausting fitting days getting to the heart of the character and how she should look. “Goodspeed is in for a treat,” says Barnes. “Louise is so smart and has such passion for the character and I was so inspired by our time together. Mame is the center of the cyclone and everything else is chosen in relation to what she wears. A thrilling undertaking!”
This thrilling undertaking is not his first romp at Goodspeed. Barnes also worked on Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter as well as Band Geeks! and Radio Girl at The Norma Terris Theatre. Although Barnes has designed for everyone from show girls, Siamese twins, and pink-obsessed law students to marching bands, tap-dancing little girls, and woodland animals, he admits that it’s hard to pick a favorite. The team of artists he’s working with is what matters most. “Your dream project can be a disaster without a true bond and mutual understanding with the rest of the creative team. It is the collective vision and passion that matter in the end.” And that’s precisely why Gregg Barnes keeps coming back to East Haddam. “It is a credit to the Goodspeed, Michael Price, the staff, crew and all of the support team that work there, that it is such a friendly and nurturing place to put on a play. Reality: Mame is a huge undertaking… sprawling, expensive, stressful. Would I rather be doing it someplace else…a bigger stage, a bigger budget? Not on your life.”