2015 Best Costume Design Nominee: Maureen Festa for The Umbrella's "La Cage Aux Folles"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.

NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com.

Maureen Festa dazzles with her period-accurate costumes in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles, continuing her reputation as a costume designer with a keen eye for detail and a flair for character.  Her Cagelles sparkled with personality as each fit into the local ensemble while showcasing each performer.  Maureen decorates and delights with each production, working intently under pressure; she designed and built La Cage Aux Folles in approximately a month!  

In her Interview, Maureen describes her work in La Cage Aux Folles as an extension of Director Peyton Pugmire's vision and concept; some of her more challenging projects, including The Rocky Horror Show and And Then There Were None, both at The Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain; and something we don't know about her! 

Maureen, it is such a pleasure to talk with you.  Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Photo Credit: Liz Bean

Photo Credit: Liz Bean

Hi, thank you for the nomination and the chance to speak with you!  I came to the world of theatre very circuitously. I've only been involved for less than a decade, and I had no prior experience actually.  My professional career has been as a librarian and researcher (I have been a researcher for fundraisers for the last 5 years); it was my neighbor, Jim Ansart who got me involved when he was producing The Wizard of Oz at The Footlight Club. We were walking our dogs together, and he mentioned that the theatre was looking for a costumer. Of course I turned him down, having no idea what that entailed, but, since I can sew, I joined the team as a seamstress.  Very quickly I became a costumer, and, with lots of mentoring from some fantastic people I've met in the theatre community, I became not just a costumer, but a designer.  My two grandmothers were both seamstresses (one worked as a master seamstress in a suit factory in Lawrence for nearly 50 years, and the other made all her own clothes), and they were pleased I'd learned to sew early on!

What were your initial thoughts when you joined The Umbrella’s production of La Cage Aux Folles?  What was your concept for your costume designs?

My initial thoughts were, “WHAT HAVE I DONE?” I was brought in after they'd unexpectedly lost two costumers, and I had a month to get this massive, elaborate show off the ground.  My immediate predecessor had done some "administrative" work, like creating a costume plot, which was helpful, but I had to work with the director, Peyton Pugmire, to create my own concept, because of time constraints and my own vision. 

The Cagelles dance at the club in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

The Cagelles dance at the club in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

The key thing that Peyton wanted to come through was the era (1980s) and that the club, La Cage Aux Folles, was not a high-class, big-budget place.  It was a slightly dingy, a bit tacky, shoe-string sort of place. I never like to recreate designs directly from the original version, either stage or film.  So, I spent some time looking at images of gay clubs, drag shows, and the Riviera in the '80s.  One key thing in the concept was Zaza wasn't to be completely over the top.  Beautifully, elaborately, sparklingly costumed, yes, but not trashy.  More Mae West, than 1980s Cher.  She is the grande dame.  Beyond that, the Cagelles needed to be uniform, but also have their own characteristics.  So, while they're dressed in the same costumes throughout the show, their hair, makeup, accessories, and attitudes are all their own.

Personally, I think the most fun I had was with Georges' costumes.  He's the man of the relationship, and he's masculine compared to Albin, but he is subtly flamboyant at all times.  He's a showman, and even his street clothes had to reflex that.  It was the small details that made costuming him fun.  Plus, I got to buy him this fabulous shiny blue suit that looked smashing on him.

Why do you think La Cage Aux Folles resonates with audiences?  What draws you to the story and characters?

La Cage was written as a play 40+ years ago, and the musical 30+ years ago, and, while times have changed…have they really?  This conservative thinking, about what makes a family, hasn't gone away. If we look at this [musical] as a period piece, it's heartening to know that today, gay marriage is legal and that Georges and Albin's longtime, loving relationship lasted more than 2 decades and they raised a wonderful son, despite the societal norms at the time.  I think that may be what sticks with audiences: that love, in every form, between spouses, between father and son, step-"mother" and son, parents and daughter, and even townspeople and their neighbors, makes this world bearable, even when things aren't going the way we want them to. I think despite some of the dated themes in La Cage, it's still a story about acceptance, not just of each other, but of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite TV designer show?  Why (or why not)?

I really don't. I can't stand how shows are edited to highlight fake drama and I think it perpetuates this voyeuristic society we've become. Having said that, I do watch a lot of home improvement shows! My favorite is probably Rehab Addict with Nicole Curtis.  I like her show because she takes derelict properties and restores them using what she finds in them or in thrift shops, or repurposed items, with the goal to give old homes new lives.  I like that.  I think it's something I do, as a costume designer, taking old items and giving them new life.  Whether it's due to budget or time constraints, or thinking more broadly, having a new approach to an old show. 

What have been some of your most challenging projects?  Why?  Which of your projects are you most proud?

Zaza, also known as Albin (Todd Yard) welcomes us to The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

Zaza, also known as Albin (Todd Yard) welcomes us to The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

Clearly, La Cage was one of my most challenging shows.  It has a big cast, lots of costumes, it's a period piece, there's a ton of men who need to wear women's formal clothing, I was working for the first time at The Umbrella so I had to learn their culture and their space, and I had only one month.  Plus it has to look "right", not cliché and not as if we pulled every sparkly dress we could find and just threw them on the cast.  It all had to be cohesive.  I am very proud of how well this show came together.

I've worked with Peyton a number of times before and we have an excellent working relationship, and each of those shows are among my favorites, especially Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None at The Footlight Club (“FLC”). While it's a pretty straight-forward period piece set in the 1940s, Peyton cast an ensemble to play each of the 10 guests' victims, as gray-scale ghosts.  Wearing the clothes they wore when they suffered their untimely deaths, I had to costume a WWI soldier, a wrongly accused prisoner, children who died in a car accident, etc.  Everything had to be shades of gray, and period, and the actors had to be able to move in their costumes as they were part of these choreographed movement pieces.  It was beautifully done, and people still mention this show as one of the best in recent years at FLC.

My most recent show was hugely fun and very challenging. We did The Rocky Horror Show, but our director Mark Sickler wanted to create a different atmosphere for the show.  Ours was set, very specifically, in the world of a 1950s Sci-Fi B-movie.  The greatest challenge was getting the fans to accept the cast in something other than the fantastic, but usual, movie version of the costumes.  Mark and I discussed how far we could push our concept, and how much of the ‘50s could we bring to our show.  I think the concept that was the most far reaching was our cast of Phantoms was dressed as ghoulish movie ushers and usherettes . . . an ode to the Usherette who opens and show.  This was very different than most shows, where the Phantoms explicitly sexy. Conceptually, we allowed the phantoms to "direct" the show, acting as the set movers, as well as set pieces themselves, literally becoming part of the set.  They both moved the actors and watched the action unfolding, as if it were a movie itself. 

Our Frank wore a ‘50s style one piece, bullet bra-ed body suit.  Rocky and Brad had pasties, like throwback burlesque performers use, for the Floor Show.  Columbia wore a very Ruby Keeler, tap-pants sailor suit. I know it was a risk, but I think we pulled it off and allowed the cast to really bring something different to their characters, again, instead of recreating what was done before.

Tell us something that we don’t know about you.  Tell us something that you think that we might have in common.

The funny thing about me is I'm not really a huge theater geek. I like to go, especially to straight plays, and I do love the old classic musicals. But I haven't seen a whole lot of big new shows, I've rarely gone to New York specifically to take in a show, and I don't know who is starring on Broadway. I often feel badly when someone tries to tell me about a show they've seen and I don't know the actors or directors.  But in some ways I think it sometimes helps my costume work, where I don't have a set idea of what a show looked like before.

I am MUCH more of a live music person.  I've sung back up for a local musician in the past, and will travel out of state to see my favorite bands play or to go to music festivals.  I remember lyrics to a ridiculous extent and my boyfriend Adam, who is a musician, is often surprised when I compare one song to another and how good I am hearing the same chord progressions and musical phrasing in different songs.

I also have this innate ability to match colors.  It's a weird skill but very useful in costuming!

Totally random something about me: I collect Santas, especially vintage ones. I recently paired down my collection but I do display about 20 of them around Christmas.

What could we find you doing on a typical Saturday, and with whom?

During a non-show weekend, I'm usually relaxing at home with Adam and our cats. I like to make breakfast or bake something on weekends and that's usually what I'll do when I get up.  We often listen to music on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Saturday evenings we go out to see bands, or maybe just have dinner or drinks with friends. 

If I'm in the midst of prepping for a show, though, I'll spend my Saturday shopping for and working on costumes.  The closer to the show opening, the more hours I'll put in.   I spend a lot of time looking for vintage clothing when I'm working on a period show, and often spend hours going from one thrift shop to the next.

What are some of your favorite stories?  Photos or other art work?

Anne (Elise Wulff) and Jean-Michel (Joe Mullin) share a tender embrace while Jacob (Scot Colford) observes in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone)

Anne (Elise Wulff) and Jean-Michel (Joe Mullin) share a tender embrace while Jacob (Scot Colford) observes in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone)

My very favorite childhood book is Harriet the Spy.  I was sort of a shy kid, and was always looking up things that interested me, so I think how Harriet observed her world and her interaction with it really struck me.  Even now, I think it's a wonderful story.

My mother used to recite bits of Robert Frost to us when we were kids.  I think his roots in Lawrence, where my family is from, made her feel a connection to him.  Plus, we're stoic, seemingly cold New Englanders and Frost informs that perspective.  “The Death of the Hired Man” is a personal favorite.  In it, Frost wrote: “‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.’”  Whatever has come before, whatever troubles you've had or caused, you have a home somewhere, that place where they have to take you in.  I like that.  

What are some productions for which you would love to design the costumes?

I would love to design some straight comedic plays like Neil Simon's period pieces: Laughter on the 23rd Floor, or Brighton Beach Memoirs, for instance.  I know it seems weird to pick pretty low key comedies, but again, I love to do period work, and to make those shows really FEEL like the period.  I think the work involved in a straight play can be overlooked . . . again, it's all the details that transport the audience to the time period. 

I went to see a professional show recently, set in the first decade of 1900s . . . and one of the leads was wearing a wrist watch.  Wrist watches didn't become popular until after WWI.  I'm sure it was likely the actor forgot to take his own off, but that detail caught my attention, and I was no longer in the era.  Same thing holds true with shoes! 

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I'll be costuming The Umbrella's productions of Oleanna and then their musical Hair in the next few months.  And I'll be collaborating on an original work commemorating an historic anniversary at The Loring Greenough House in Jamaica Plain sometime later this year.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

It is a privilege to be part of the vibrant theater community in Boston and I am honored that the reviewers and theater goers support our efforts.  Go see more live works, whether theater, music, performance arts, dance!