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2013 Fall Issue 8 (November 15, 2013)

11 Questions with Carleton's Costume Designer

November 15, 2013
By Grace Black

Costume director Mary Ann Kelling has spent thirteen years getting Carls gussied up before they hit the stage – even in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer. This week I sat down to chat with her about sewing, teaching, and design theory.

GB: What’s your job description?

MAK: (Laughs) I am part time, and my staff part of my job is to design the three theatre productions that the department does and oversee the student workers in the costume shop. Then, as I’ve been here, we’ve started folding in teaching on a lecture basis when the department has the money.

GB: What do you teach?

MAK: I teach costume design, makeup design, and a class we call Topics of Costume Design, and that topic changes every time I teach it and it’s connected to a show always. So I’ve taught, how to sew, how to pattern, fabric modification. That kind of thing.

GB: How long have you worked here?

MAK: Since 2000.

GB: How did you get into costume design?

MAK: I had a student work job at St. Olaf, where I did undergrad, in the costume shop because I knew how to sew. That’s kind of how it started. I was interested in fashion design and I was an art major, so when I started working in the theatre, I was like, oh, this combines all the things I love to do in one job!

GB: How old were you when you learned how to sew?

MAK: My mom is a seamstress, so she taught me. I probably started sewing when I was ten.

GB: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

MAK: I had no idea. In high school I kind of though about fashion design, and when I was in California I taught in a fashion design school, but there’s a kind of cut throat way of working that’s not quite my style. I think theatre better suits me, not that there aren’t deadlines, but the kind of art behind it. You’re creating a kind of moving painting on stage.

GB: Tell us about your cancer last year. How did that factor into your work?

MAK: I had breast cancer, so right when my chemo started was around when school started last year. So I did chemo fall term and radiation winter term. But thankfully, we had done a lot of large shows the two years previously, and Ruth [Weiner] was kind of tired out of large shows, so she did a small modern show, and so did Roger [Bechtel], so I was pretty able to handle it. I was more tired than I usually am, but because I’m part time I could kind of manipulate my hours around going to chemo. And my student workers are great, and I could leave them a list of stuff to do, so I didn’t have quite as taxing of a design to do.

GB: How was costuming for Twelfth Night?

MAK: Fun. It was interesting to do that again, because I designed that once with Ruth six or seven years ago. It was fun to see a new vision for this production. The other one was set in the 1930’s and this one was more modern. At first we talked about making it its own world so that it wasn’t specifically American or specifically anywhere. I don’t know that that really came across, because the clothes that we have are from here, but we tried to neutralize that. But it was really fun to have a different take on the show.

GB: What’s your favorite and least favorite part of your job?

MAK: I have lots of favorites. I love to do research. I like to come up with the ideas of what the people are gonna be wearing. I like to sew. We get kinda tired of doing laundry. That’s probably my least favorite part, digging people’s sweaty socks out of the bags at the end of the show. Those things are not necessarily fun.

GB: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever made?

MAK: One of my favorite designs here was an adaptation we did of The House of Seven Gables. Looking at the script, I was noticing how people told their own stories, it was very narrative. People kind of stepped out of their characters and introduced their story. Somehow this idea popped into my head that their costumes should connect to their stories. We did a fabric modification thing, so all the costumes had images and writing on them from the text or images from their past. There was this layering of texture and images and words imposed on all the costumes.

GB: So they kind of wore their stories?

MAK: Yeah. It was really cool.

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