A Designer’s Journey

Posted on February 27, 2018

Gail Russell – Costume Designer – MARJORIE PRIME

January 25, 2018 

Costumes for Marjorie Prime.

Hell! I’m going to Florida!

January 31, 2018

It’s been a week since my initial expletive.

Travel plans, check

Home responsibility coverage, check

The must-do list, check

Now, where to start?

Marjorie Prime was written by Jordan Harrison.  Originally commissioned, in-part, by Playwrights Horizons, it premiered in 2014 at the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, followed by its New York debut in 2015. Capital Stage and American Stage in St. Petersburg, Florida, are presenting a co-production. First the show will be built, rehearsed and premiered in Florida from March 7 – April 1, 2018. Then Stephanie Gularte and the entire cast, set and designs will come out to Sacramento, California, to run from May 2 – June 3, 2018. 

Readily available, and easily through Amazon, I’d bought a copy of the script back in September when the mere possibility of working on this co-production presented itself.  As a long-time costume designer for Capital Stage Co., the chance to join Stephanie Gularte on another ambitious, challenging, and creative journey intrigued me. The opportunity to grow and work with an unknown-to-me production team, in a new facility, in an unfamiliar place was an adventure I did not want to miss. So, after a few rounds of phone tag, Stephanie and I finally hooked up, talked about the show, discussed our needs, and a long-distance agreement was made. 

My initial reading of the script left me a bit confused and honestly, a bit scared.  What was going on?   What should I be highlighting, what margin notations should I make?  The text concisely states where we are, who is who and their ages, but exactly when the action takes place and the relationship between characters, especially that between Walter and Marjorie, is not immediately clear.  The fact that Walter is a being of artificial intelligence, a Prime, takes a bit to figure out, but once it’s figured out rather than settling in for the rest of the read, a whole new set of questions storms your brain and you’re back to being a bit confused and honestly, a bit scared.  As part of our introduction to the work, Stephanie sent us an on-line link to an interview with Jordan Harrison and New York director, Anne Kauffman.  It also included live scene readings from several parts of the play.  This was an opportunity to hear the words and to gain background regarding the story’s origins, and the message and ideas the playwright wished to express.  I took notes as if attending a lecture.


Basic idea #1:

Humans verses machines. The exploration and mystery of human identity and what technology can replace. What makes human thinking distinct, special, or unique? Reference was made to the Turing Test, developed in the 1950’s by Alan Turing to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

Is this new news?

Projections of the future are at least as old (if not older than) The Jetsons, Mr. Spock and Star Trek.  Our ability to predict the future is slower than the future getting here. DING!! And as technology grows, and we allow it to come more and more into our lives, willingly or not, we are getting acclimated to it.   

What does this mean?

Some people think this acceptance of technology is a bad thing.  Some people question it, try to avoid it. Is technology portrayed as a negative element in this play? How big is it?  Will it swallow us up? Jordan Harrison says, “No.” There is a utopian idea of technology in this play.  How can it be used in positive ways?  Can technology be used to preserve us? Can technology be spiritual?  The character of Marjorie, he says, our 85-year-old protagonist, comes partly from his grandmother and his parents’ attempt to keep her life alive. I understood this all too well, being in the same situation right now with my own 92-year-old mother.  So, from the very beginning, personal memory comes in to play. Can technology supply companionship for the elderly?  Does this get us off the hook? Anne Kauffman discussed the difficulty of how to direct the “Primes.”  How do you honestly direct actors to play characters of artificial intelligence? Their role in this play is not cut and dry.  Each Prime is there for a certain reason, to bring about a certain reaction. 

So, how do we use all this?

A few weeks ago, when Stephanie and I had the opportunity to phone chat and discuss our approach to this production of this play, several ideas reoccurred. The poetry underlying the characters’ relationships and our need for human connection was very important to her. The Sci-fi of the play is increasingly relevant.  The play is set 50 years in the future, a conceivable time span for many of us.  In many ways the future is already here. What does that mean to us?  If we were to logically sit down and really think about how life will be in 50 years and why…what would we say?  Genuine is a word I used to describe how important it is to keep the look, the visual elements of the show believable and acceptable to the audience. If the audience spends too much time trying to understand where they are, they will miss what is being said, leaving them confused. This play requires us to pay close attention. How do we make it personal? Subtle, but recognizable choices.  How do we balance the human verses non-human? Is it robotic verses overly natural?  Is it human verses not-so-human? How slightly “other” is it? 

Tomorrow morning, I join the “Creative Huddle,” a group phone chat with Stephanie, the American Stage Theatre Co. production manager, and, I assume, the rest of the production team.  I am looking forward to the adventure I don’t want to miss. Hopefully, the necessary long-distance technology of the next few weeks won’t find me too confused, for honestly, I am a bit scared. 



It’s been two weeks since the conference call, joining up the director with stage management, designers, production, and marketing. I’ve been working on a costume approach that takes several variables into consideration. First, of course, is the script itself and the director’s vision of the work.  Next are things the set and lighting design said concerning how they see the show and what can we do to create a cohesive world, one that “hangs together” so to say. A world that makes sense to us, to the actors, and to the audience. Genuine is that word that keeps coming back. The audience has to believe it, they have to buy into it if they are to relate to it, see themselves in this situation, and feel for what’s happening on the stage. I ask, what will people be wearing in 50 years, how “off” will it be from what we are wearing today, and most importantly why? Design choices are not arbitrary. They are rooted in research, an investigation that leads us to the facts of the world we are about to create. What are the clothing trends of today that will persist into tomorrow? Are there designers who have pioneered the “futuristic path, laying the groundwork on which to base viable conclusions? Who is the consumer, how will they be perceived? What materials will be used/ How will manufacturing change or not?

One of the things that was said during a phone conversation with director, Stephanie Gularte, was “The edge of humanity meets the black hole of science”. Neither of us even remembers this actually being said, but somehow that’s what ended up on my notepad, inspiring an image that I can take over into my design presentation. The human figure being sucked into the cosmos. The interlocking of images, much like a yin/yang. Jerid Fox details his sensational streamline set in neutral tans, greys and blues which dictates to me a silhouette and a certain range and intensity of colors that I must consider and work with. Lighting designer, Chris Baldwin, referenced “focusing with light”, pulling the audience closer to the story being told. How can I do that with costumes?  Color, shape, line, texture all come together offering a good place to start.

Design presentations need to reflect the show.  The method of presentation is as important as the information it conveys. Computer Aided Design is the way of today.  Most designers somehow incorporate this technology into their thought process.  I am an old-fashioned person in a new-fashioned world and despite my tendency to hardcopy, ‘handmade’ crafty boards, Marjory Prime required a more digital approach.  I decided to use PowerPoint to organize my ideas, creating a presentation that could accompany the one planned by American Stage as part of their Meet and Greet. I combined my ever present, yin/yang/human/cosmos idea with each character’s individual neutral palette, complementing the set, popped with a spotlight of color. To this I added “facts and figures”, what did I need to consider, what had I learned, what prototypes had I found? It always takes me a bit to pull in the tempest of ideas, to focus, to take a deep breath, and settle in for the long night of formation.