Behind the seams
By Kim (Lopas) Sullivan ’95
A designer’s eye for the grace in life informs the elegance in her art – art that has taken her from circus to theater, from advertising to academia.
|Persistence has won Verheyen an award-winning career that keeps her design skills in demand for a wide range of productions. Top: Costumes for the prince and Benedict from “Elizabeth Rex,” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Bottom: Costumes for “The Luck of the Irish,” at Boston’s Huntington Theatre.
When Mariann Verheyen ’72 takes a moment to mentally sift through all the costumes she’s created in her career, it is those from a production that critics voted a flop that stand out as the most beautiful.
The inspiration for the full-length, flowing garments the performers wore at the top of the second act of “Children of Eden” came from the combination of a whirling dervish dance – a dance characterized by spinning a piece of fabric in a big circle – with the image of a child blowing a pinwheel on a stick.
“At first when the performers opened up, all you saw was the geographic patterns that I had silkscreened. Then they spun and became these huge circles all over the stage that created an optical mix; the costumes looked as if they were doing a sunrise with the colors that emerged as they danced,” says Verheyen. Despite the fact that critics didn’t “get it,” Verheyen remains proud of that piece of work. “I took a risk and got slammed and I don’t regret it at all. I still think it’s beautiful.”
Verheyen continued taking risks, letting her eye for beauty and her ability to see shape, pattern and composition direct her design work. It earned her the respect of the industry. Verheyen has two IRNE Awards (Huntington Theatre in Boston), a Suzi Award (Alliance Theatre in Atlanta), a New York City Villager Downtowner Theatre Award and a Jeff Award (Chicago Shakespeare Theater). She attributes her successful career to perseverance, hard work and luck. She began designing costumes under Kelly Collum (Theatre Studies, Emeritus) when she was a sophomore at the college. With no space for a costume shop, Verheyen says: “Kelly had the bright
idea to put me in the light lab – pun intended. It was dark, dingy, cramped, chilly – and perfect.” She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin and then boldly booked a one-way ticket to New York City with just $300 in her pocket.
Verheyen recalls her tough start, working for the circus: “There were some dark days of despair,” she says, “wondering how sweating in an unconditioned shop in the high heat of a NYC summer, building elephant blankets (that was like sewing a wall for a house) was ever going to get me to design.” That experience almost made her quit. She remembers standing in her parents’ kitchen that following summer, sobbing to her mom that it was just too hard. “God bless her,” Verheyen says, “she was not having it. She sent me back.”
Years later, Verheyen’s reputation as a sought-after costume designer caught Boston University’s attention. In 1991, she finally acquiesced to the department chair’s request to teach, because she felt burned out from her work on TV commercials in New York. “When I took the job,” Verheyen says, “I thought I’d give it a couple of years ... and I ended up falling in love with it.”
Now Verheyen balances her costume design work for theatre with her role as associate professor and head of the costume design program at Boston University College of Fine Arts, School of Theatre. She doesn’t find managing the two to be difficult; the school wants her to continue to design, and the theaters she works at respect her desire to teach.
“It is juggling a life that requires the greatest effort,” says Verheyen. “The irony of many theatre people is that we are in a business about telling stories about life, illustrating some grace or beauty of life ... but then forget to have one.”
July 8, 2012