Actor Kathleen McCall as a Hollywood star named Masha who wants to go to a costume party dressed as an age-inappropriate Snow White. Design by Meghan Anderson Doyle. Photograph by Jennifer M. Koskinen.
At first glance, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would not appear to be a costume designer’s dream. More like a snooze. The play opens with contemporary adult siblings in modern dress wearing basic, muted earth tones.
But from the moment their sister Masha walks in, “There is just this explosion of Hollywood color,” says Costume Designer Meghan Anderson Doyle (pictured at right).
In Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy rooted in the anachronistic world of Anton Chekhov, Masha is a successful actor, and her adult siblings are living off her largess.
“We laughed most about figuring out the Masha celebrity look,” said Doyle, a graduate of Denver North High School and the universities of Denver (B.A.) and Florida (M.F.A). “We came up with everything from Kim Kardashian's mother to The Housewives of New York.”
But then, out of nowhere, Durang tosses Doyle and costume designers around the world a bright, technicolor bouquet: The family has been invited to a costume party. And Masha -- a woman in her 50s -- has decided she will be going as Snow White. And she has ruled that her siblings will be accompanying her … as dwarfs. Enter Grumpy and Dopey.
For Doyle, “It’s like getting to design two plays in one.” And the bigger the separation – from a mundane breakfast conversation to a costume party later on -- “the more dynamic the payoff,” she said.
Durang is known as an absurdist comic writer, but Doyle and Director Jenn Thompson chose to keep the Snow White party costumes true to the Disney movie. That means they are very much drenched in cartoon colors – “vibrant yellow, blue and red,” said Doyle. “She's got the traditional blue bodice with the yellow skirt, and the big red bow in her hair.
“Of course … the proportions are so completely different from the original characters, so that’s part of the fun, too.”
Doyle has always loved playing dress-up, so designing a show like this one fulfills a childhood dream.
“You know, I am still a princessy kind of girlie girl, but I don't know that I was ever exactly a Snow White person,” she said. “I think I was more The Little Mermaid. But whatever the occasion – I do love to dress up.”
Kathleen McCall as a Hollywood star named Masha. Design by Meghan Anderson Doyle. Photograph by Jennifer M. Koskinen.
No surprise then, that Halloween Doyle’s favorite time of the year. Last weekend, she again conspired with fellow DCPA Costume Designer Kevin Copenhaver to scare the bejeezus out of downtown passersby during Denver’s annual Zombie Crawl.
“Oh, yes: Kevin and I definitely love anything to do with zombies,” she said. (See photo at top of this page.)
Doyle began working at the DCPA as an intern while still a student at North High School, and was hired as a full-time designer after she earned her masters degree in 2006. Doyle has since designed six Theatre Company mainstage shows herself and assisted on dozens of others.
“To have a job in the arts where you are using your degree? That’s pretty fantastic,” she said.
Doyle has been the lead designer on Jackie & Me, Superior Donuts, Well, The Giver and the world premiere of Ed, Downloaded for the Theatre Company. Interesting trivia: Doyle worked closely with Ed, Downloaded playwright Michael Mitnick for its Denver debut – and Mitnick wrote the screenplay for the new film adaptation of The Giver. “So getting to work with him was pretty exciting,” she said.
Doyle also designed the first four seasons of Off-Center’s Cult Following, and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change! and Five Course Love for the Garner Galleria cabaret theatre. When the National Theatre Conservatory was in operation, Doyle designed 16 productions. She has also worked about town at the Curious Theatre Company (Good People, The Brothers Size, A Number, Up, tempOdyssey) and The Aurora Fox (Metamorphoses).
Her DCPA status is called “full-time seasonal,” meaning she works full-time as long as the Theatre Company is in process. That covers about nine months a year.
So how big of a deal is it when you get to be the lead designer on a Theatre Company show?
“Oh, it is huge,” Doyle said. “Especially, I think, being a Denver person and to get to design in the place where you have come to see so many shows growing up.”
While designing period or Shakespearean pieces often draw the most attention to the designer, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike presented Doyle with several unique challenges. The play is a contemporary comedy but is laced with Chekhov underpinnings.
So how do you approach a show when it’s a parody -- but it's not? That is rooted in the world of Chekhov -- but it's not?
“You know, we really started the whole design process saying, ‘Things are thinly veiled,’ “ Doyle said. There are Chekhovian references, but they are in plain sight. I think a lot of the Chekhov plays more directly into Lisa Orzolek’s set design than into the costumes. But it’s no accident that the script initially references Vanya (Sam Gregory) as being in a nightshirt – even though I don't know too many grown men who wear a nightshirt anymore. So I think the Chekhov is definitely in there.”
Doyle also had the logistical challenge of designing for a director who lives in New York. Doyle starts the creative process months in advance, and typically an out-of-town director does not arrive in Denver until rehearsals begin about a month before opening. That made for many phone conversations and Dropbox file-sharing between Doyle and Thompson.
“We did have an initial design conference in May here in Denver, which is great because you meet face-to-face, and you get a real sense of how someone wants to work,” Doyle said. “So we knew even then that Jenn is really easygoing and fun to work with.”
It’s also fun, she added, “when the actors are such good sports about it. You can go, 'We are going to give you giant plastic ears and a really hot green robe that has arms that are way too long, and ... I hope you do something magical and fantastic with it.’ And they do.”
Lesley Shires as Nina ... as a dwarf. Design by Meghan Anderson Doyle. Photograph by Jennifer M. Koskinen.
Here is more of our conversation with Meghan Anderson Doyle on her life as a costumer. And check out her full online portfolio here.
John Moore: Do you think costumers get the credit they deserve for designing contemporary shows, when actors are dressed in everyday clothes?
Meghan Anderson Doyle: No. I think people see contemporary shows and assume the same kind of planning hasn't gone into it. But just look at television: All those sit-coms and commercials. If it's contemporary, it's got a costume designer who created that look, but nobody ever knows who that is. The tricky thing about contemporary costumed shows is you really do want to make a piece that's cohesive to the world. You don't want the costumes to stand out as awkward or strange or flashy ... until they should. It's definitely a different way to approach a show. I wouldn't say that it is better or worse, but it is definitely different.
John Moore: So is it more fun when you get to design a period piece because it's more noticeable?
Meghan Anderson Doyle: I think it's a different challenge. You get to do all the fun things that you practiced in school, and you get to research the period, and you get to pick the fabrics. You get to make more of your own choices, I think, as opposed to a contemporary story where it’s more about going shopping and just making choices just on what's in stores.
John Moore: Does it drive you crazy when costumers win awards for shows when it turns out the costumes were all just rented?
Meghan Anderson Doyle: Oh … yeah. There are a lot of times where you are like, 'Not cool.' But, you know...
John Moore: So here's my beef with Shakespeare. In many stories, things get really dirty, muddy and bloody. In The Tempest, there has been a storm and a shipwreck, and the actors walk out of the ocean and they all wearing these beautiful, clean, dry, pristine costumes. It’s pretty obvious that there is more concern for keeping these fancy clothes clean than being true to that moment of the play.
Meghan Anderson Doyle: Yeah. I think sometimes that happens. I think it depends on the verisimilitude of the world you have created. Sometimes they are supposed to be pristine and perfect. I like more grungy, and a little more grit.
John Moore: I am sorry to interrupt, but that’s such a good word. For the sake of those who don’t know, I am going to tell readers that means “the appearance of being true or real.”
Meghan Anderson Doyle: Yes. You have to be true to the world you have created.
John Moore: Most audiences (and critics!) are undereducated as to what all goes into the costume craft. And sometimes you work on a dress for months, and it’s only on stage for 15 seconds.
Meghan Anderson Doyle: Yes. Sometimes you are kind of disappointed in that, but then you think, 'If we hadn't done that, it would have been a wasted opportunity.'
John Moore: And sometimes a moment on stage only has to be a moment.
Meghan Anderson Doyle: Right. If you ever look at our programs, you can see how many people are working backstage. It really takes so many of us to do what we do.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike: Ticket information
Performances run through Nov. 16
303-893-4100, or go to the Denver Center’s web site at www.DenverCenter.Org
Our previous coverage of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Video: Watch a montage of scenes from the production
Cold coffee, hot popcorn make for a good Vanya stew
Durang strikes an unexpected peace with an indifferent Broadway
Vanya ... is the most popular play in America
Opening Night photos
Vanya ... First rehearsal photos
Meet the Cast video: Eddie Lopez
Check out our Study Guide
Previous DCPA 'Art and Artist' profiles:
Scenic Designer Kyle Malone
Stage Manager Kurt Van Raden
Teaching Artist Jessica Austgen
Head of Acting Lawrence Hecht
Lighting Designer Charles MacLeod
Director of I.T. Bruce Montgomery
Stage Manager Lyle Raper
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike": Costume designs by Meghan Anderson Doyle.
Kevin Copenhaver, Christine Rowan, "Animal Crackers" and the art of costume quackery. A video project by John Moore.
MORE ON DENVER CENTER COSTUMING: