Cascade Theatre's Skillful Costumer, Marcella Brown
By Kerri Regan
Story by Kerri Regan
Photos by Kara Stewart
THE AVERAGE PERSON sees black fleece; Marcella Brown sees ape fur. Someone sees a wig; Brown sees Tarzan’s matted dreadlocks. Someone sees glittery Spandex; Brown sees the Tin Man.
As the primary costumer for the Cascade Theatre, Brown transforms actors into the characters that they play on stage. She creates the costumes for “A Cascade Christmas” and the Cascade’s annual spring and summer productions, including “Oliver,” which opens April 19.
Brown’s first involvement with the Cascade was during “Wizard of Oz,” and the director said the Tin Man needed to look like metal, but still be able to dance. Sparkly Spandex did the trick, “and when we got it up on stage, it looked so good,” Brown says. Her credits include “Peter Pan,” “Tarzan,” “Rock of Ages” and more.
“I got my name for being the most glittery person in the world - I love to bedazzle everything,” she says. “Even Peter Pan got some sparkles because you had to be able to see her on stage. Not everybody notices that, but the ones that do really get it. If I could have kept bedazzling Captain Hook, I would have, but he must have lost about 30 pounds during the show because his coat was so heavy.”
Brown’s love for sewing was inspired by her seamstress mother. “She told me, ‘When your foot can reach the pedal, you can sew.’ I was about 9, and once it began I never stopped. I sewed for my dolls, for my neighbors - then about 35 years ago, I started with weddings.”
Her upbringing in San Francisco sparked her interest in costuming. “My grandmother used to take me to ballets and operas, and as a little girl sitting out in the audience, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I didn't want to be a dancer – I wanted to sew. Most of the little girls wanted to take ballet lessons and be a ballerina. Not me. I wanted to make the pretty dresses.”
The lifeblood of her operation are three regular sewing machines, three sergers and two embroidery machines, “and every one of them gets used,” she says. Costumes start out as sketches on paper, and watching them come to life is otherworldly. “I did the drawing for the beautiful purple flower in Tarzan, and once I got her done and got her on stage, it was just magical. I got to make a flower that danced.”
“Then I nitpick,” she admits, “but that’s later.”
The mother of three moved to Redding from the Bay Area in 1989, where she made dresses at Loralie Originals. “I thought I knew everything, but I learned a lot of secrets,” she says. She then ran a children’s clothing shop, Marshmallow Kids, for a few years. She continues to make custom wedding gowns occasionally.
“The harder it is, the better. I don't like the simple things - I want to do the wedding dress that one bride wanted out of red velvet. She knew what she wanted and it turned out beautiful,” Brown says.
Jana Leard, producer and artistic director for the Cascade Theatre, marvels at Brown’s attention to detail. “Her costumes are museum worthy and crafted with love,” Leard says. “She is extremely creative in her design, authentic in nature with the final product and her costumes are always presented with the highest quality. She understands the demands of durability for the needs of the cast and stage as well as being extremely flexible when edits and changes needed to be made.”
Tarzan’s wigs were a perfect example. She combined two wigs so she had enough hair. And while real hair knots up quite nicely, it’s tricky to get synthetic hair to behave that way. “I used powders and soap and icky things to make it want to stay matted and not come out,” she says. Night after night, she spent hours watching TV while she used lice combs to create that look.
“Tarzan had to look phenomenal, and he did,” she says. “If he would have just had some funky wig, it would have looked funky.”
Outfitting the apes “wasn’t sewing - that was just craziness,” she says. “We had 129 yards of black fleece that we cut into one-inch strips, and then we cut little holes in the pants and T-shirts and tied the strips onto the garments.”
Each lead character had a unique fur color - red and burgundy, silver, blue - so “we had to find anything we could find that could blend in with the black and make the colors,” Brown says. “That was fun, especially when you put them on your mannequins and back up and look at them. They were just gorgeous” – so impressive, in fact, that a Los Angeles company asked to rent them.
Work on the Christmas show begins in August, and work on the spring show begins in January. Each show can easily require 100 costumes. “It's a madhouse in the green room,” she says.
And when the curtain finally rises, watching her work come to life defies description. “The first show you get to sit down and watch fully, you just sit there with little goosebumps the whole time,” she says. “I hold my husband's hand and squeeze it the whole way through.
“It’s been a dream-come-true kind of job.” •