Clothes with lines Her costumes amplify a play's message

January 16, 1991|By Sujata Banerjee | Sujata Banerjee,Evening Sun Staff

MARY MEASE WARREN wears her theatrical productions like jewels. For "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," she has a bracelet of brightly colored stones, a rainbow of the colors in the costumes she designed. And to celebrate "Candida," Center Stage's current play set in the romantic Victorian era, she has taken to wearing a delicate cameo brooch that Candida, the housewife heroine, would appreciate.

At 41, the costume designer has zig-zagged from Broadway tBaltimore, Chicago to Pittsburgh, where she temporarily chucked her theater career to raise two young sons. And whether she is on the set or off, there's nothing Warren enjoys more than the romance of color and the power of personal style.

"You can sit on a bus and watch people...or watch women ichurch...and they are characters," says Warren enthusiastically. She's the kind of person who has done "Dames at Sea" four times with completely different costume themes for each show. For "Candida," the challenge was presenting the elaborate, full-sleeved, wasp-waisted fashions of 1984 as unremarkable, every-day wear. She also uses color to explore the emotions of characters, from vibrant green to show Candida's liveliness to sedate blue to show secretary Prosprine's repressed condition.

Costume is an evolution," says Warren, who spends two to three months before a show opens on sketching and finding fabrics. The theater's costume shop (at Center Stage, there are five workers) makes patterns of Warren's designs that custom-fit the actors. Then each design is cut, sewn and embroidered. Wigs are made by a separate designer, and shoes are usually custom-ordered from a specialist New York.

Still, the costume process is not complete. After seeing the "Candida" costumes in dress rehearsal, Warren went back to work because she decided the effect was "too rich." Warren painted over the sparkle in Candida's coat, swapped a white organdy apron for a utilitarian blue cotton one and eliminated almost all jewelry.

"The right costumes are not too noticeable. The audience is not supposed to wonder, 'Is that right? Why does she have that on?' If they have to take the time to wonder about the shoes or hair or fabric, the whole costume concept is wrong," says Warren.

Warren grew up in a middle-class household in Pittsburgh witten children who were encouraged to excel in cultural and educational activities. The designer first began sewing around age five, when she learned to hem and cross-stitch, and later moved on to sew replicas of the clothes she saw in Glamour and Seventeen. A concurrent love of art began in elementary school, when she was selected to study at an art school program for exceptional students. At 16, she won a national youth fashion design competition and received a $200 award which made her feel "like a millionaire." She also graduated high school at 16. "In those days, they called people who skipped a grade "strange" remembers Warren, who did two years at a junior college before entering Carnegie Mellon University to study art history at 18. Quickly, she discovered the school's noted theater department. She switched her major to costume design.

Warren learned fashion history from corsets to mini skirts, pattern-making and draping, and most important, how to blend costumes with lighting and set design. There was constant contact with theater professionals in New York. While in school, Warren sent sketches to them and made herself well-known enough to land her first job designing costumes for the Negro Ensemble Company's production of "The Great McDaddy." After she received a graduate degree in costume design, she moved to New York and worked there for four years.

"People didn't expect me to go to New York and they didn't expect that I would succeed," says Warren, who went with her baby son, born during her student years, during a marriage to another student that ended in divorce. In New York, she savored heady days as a costume designer for off-Broadway, Broadway and television productions including "The First Breeze of Summer" and "Waiting for Mongo" at the Negro Ensemble Company and "So Nice They Named It Twice -- New York, New York" at Joseph Papp's Public Theater. Her spare moments were spent hanging with theatrical friends such as Howard Rollins and Garrett Morris. She married again, to an actor she eventually divorced, who fathered her second son.

Warren moved briefly to Washington, D.C. to teach at Howard University and then to New Orleans to teach at Tulane. Eventually she found the teaching, the weekly plane travel to fittings and theater premieres were leaving her no time with her children, who were by this time staying with her family in Pittsburgh.

"I was always tired," says Warren. "I'd go home and [the children] would be with my family -- but it was killing me. I decided it was important to be there, to go to the school things and help them with their homework."

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