Costume designer Murell Horton on dressing two epic plays in rep at STC

Costume designer Murell Horton has a simple philosophy: “Theatre, to me, is really good storytelling if it’s done well. It’s also about coming together to create a world that had not been there before.”

Thanks to Horton’s work, when audiences enter the worlds of ancient Rome and 17th Century Germany at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, it’s easier to tell a plebeian from a senator or a grenadier from a general.

Murell Horton (Photo: courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Murell Horton (Photo: courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Horton was charged with the sizeable task of costuming both epics in the Hero/Traitor Series now playing at Sidney Harman Hall where William Shakespeare’s dark Coriolanus, and the Friedrich Schiller epic Wallenstein are now in alternating repertory.

Both plays revolve around central characters known for their military cunning. Bloody Roman politics are center-stage in Coriolanus as the title character’s own country turns against him and he must rise from banishment to become feared by the Roman people.

In Wallenstein, a celebrated general must reconcile his own power and ambition during the part of the Thirty Years War. General Wallenstein also has to face growing distrust from the German emperor. Originally a trilogy, poet laureate Robert Pinsky has freely adapted Schiller’s work for a world premiere production.

Looking at the prospect of designing the wardrobes for two distinct productions, Horton was initially reluctant. “At first I worried about splitting the focus, with two shows of this scope together at the same time in the costume shop; that idea made me nervous.  But they are, of course, two entirely different shows, and once I realized they also had two different approaches, it kind of made that part easier.” (Studio Theatre’s artistic director David Muse is directing Coriolanus, while Michael Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company is helming Wallenstein.)

This year, Horton marks his thirteenth season designing costumes for the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Kahn first spotted Horton’s work at Julliard. “I thought it was so imaginative and really brought a very particular design idea to a production of Chekhov,” Kahn recalled. After Horton left graduate school, Kahn invited him to provide designs for Camino Real by Tennessee Williams.

With that show in 2005, “Michael gave me my start. It was a chance to be really creative but really true to the characters and tell the story in a different way.”

Horton returned to dress Judith Light in Hedda Gabler, and has returned regularly ever since.

This season is the first time he has been asked to do designs for two shows in rotating repertory.

Planning the designs began last summer, when Horton read the scripts and anything that would support the chosen productions. Discussions with Muse and Kahn continued throughout the pre-planning phase. “Then we all met with the set designer Blythe R.D. Quinlan in New York,” Horton explained.

“We looked at the set model together along with my drawings and research. We were able to clarify some ideas and talk about colors and textures. The sets are heavy and masculine, while being elegant at the same time. For Coriolanus, I concentrated on clean, simple lines; for Wallenstein, bigger shapes and deeper colors.”

“Silhouette is often the first thing you know about a character when they walk out on stage. It’s important for me to have the shapes very clear.”

Communicating his early ideas for the silhouettes, Horton made a series of rough sketches in black and white. “Once everyone’s kind of onboard with those shapes, I do a round of color sketches, being as specific as I can.”

Looking at examples of Horton’s design work for the Hero/Traitor Repertory, the drawings show the clearly defined lines for each production. Coriolanus has a look that is not specifically Roman antiquity. “One of the things I’m known for is mixing periods,” Horton explained. “You see ideas of ancient Rome in there, but it’s also contemporary suits,” as in the uniforms and battle gear.

Design and actual costume worn by Patrick Page as Coriolanus (Production photo by Scott Suchman)

Horton’s design and the actual costume worn by Patrick Page as Coriolanus (Production photo by Scott Suchman)

Designed for actor Patrick Page in the title role, Horton’s renderings show clean outlines and a universal military look. As for color, Horton said it made sense to do Coriolanus in grays with pops of red.

Where Coriolanus melds time periods, Wallenstein is set during portions of the Thirty Years War, 1618 to 1648. “I did very specific period research on Wallenstein. We had to create our versions of grenadier costumes that look like they come from different points of the war, for example.”

“I also found a famous portrait of Albrecht von Wallenstein, showing his signature colors as black with a touch of red. So black is one of our dominant colors. Everything is dark and very sculptural.”

By contrast, the renderings for Thekla in Wallenstein display an elaborate gown with a corseted bodice and bell-like skirt cascading down to the floor, specific to the era of the Thirty Years War.

Most of the twenty-seven member acting ensemble perform multiple characters in both Coriolanus and Wallenstein. “Some double, while others play three or even four parts,” Horton affirmed. Careful planning for the shop personnel, space requirements and use of the available resources was a critical planning step.

According to Kahn, “Murell is very good at working with the director’s vision while staying in the constraints of the resources. In this case, working with two big productions, he’s been quite wonderful about giving David and me what we’re looking for but also keeping within the specific budget.”

Wendy Stark Prey is one of Horton’s biggest allies in the budgeting and planning process. She is the costume shop director for Shakespeare Theatre Company who supervises the staff and artisans who make the designs a reality. “Wendy and I have worked together quite a few times, and it has worked out very well this time. We were able to negotiate the work so that no one seemed overwhelmed.”

Once costumes are completed, seeing them on the actors for the first time is always an eye-opening, according to Horton. “During technical rehearsals, you always see things you want to change a little bit here and there.”

“Just as important as seeing what does work, is seeing what absolutely does not work,” he chuckled. “Sometimes it’s surprising when it actually works.”

Horton has now had a chance to see his work onstage before the audiences at Sidney Harman Hall. “It’s unbelievable how it comes together. The ah-ha moment is pretty much when you have the audience there and you’re thinking, it’s working and they are getting it.”

Good storytelling at its finest.

There is also a personal satisfaction for Horton when he sees his work on the stage.

“For me, it is always exciting to sit in the house and get to see an actor wearing something that was once just a big idea on paper.”

Coriolanus has its official opening Wednesday, April 10. Wallenstein opens the following week: April 17, 2013. Details and tickets.


Jeffrey Walker About Jeffrey Walker

Jeff has written for DC Theatre Scene since 2012, turning in nearly 150 reviews or features – and counting. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. He appreciates the opportunity to write about the rich variety of theatre in the DC-MD-VA area. Jeff lives safely below the Beltway where he is a theatre educator, novice playwright, husband and father. He is also an experienced director and actor and has performed in musicals, Shakespeare, classics, operettas, and contemporary works. He is a graduate of Roanoke College. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffwalker66



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