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Meet Emma Williams: Globe Theatre’s Resident Costume Designer

October 25, 2012
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Emma Williams, Globe Theatre’s Resident Costume Designer for the 2012|2013 Season.

Long ago and far away, in a land they call the United Kingdom, a young girl was beside herself with joy to learn she had been cast in the Christmas play at her primary school. Alas, come the day of the performance, her joy evaporated into terror. She stood before the audience, and was paralyzed with fear.

“I panicked. I bolted. I ran backstage,” Emma Williams says. “I started helping the other kids with their costumes, and that was it, life has never been the same.”

Life has taken many a twist and turn since that Christmas play, and now in a roundabout way, it has brought her to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the Globe Theatre as resident costume designer responsible for four of the six Main Stage productions, with a Sandbox show thrown in to ensure that she wouldn’t find herself sitting around at some point with nothing to do.

“It’s bonkers!” she says with a smile. Of course, as a theatre person, she wouldn’t have it any other way. A highly regarded costume designer whose credits include the Royal Shakespeare Company, the West End, and Broadway, she finds herself … Where does she find herself exactly? First World War. Contemporary Scotland. Kansas now, about to depart for Oz.

“I arrived in August and I hit the ground running,” says Williams, who began with Billy Bishop Goes to War, segued to the Sandbox for Midsummer [a play with songs] and has returned to the Main Stage to work on The Wizard of Oz. In the spring, she will design Pride and Prejudice and The Drowsy Chaperone.

(Williams will be making trips to England to spend time with her family between The Wizard of Oz and Pride and Prejudice, and between Pride and Prejudice and The Drowsy Chaperone. For this, she is grateful to artistic director Ruth Smillie and the Globe. Homesickness spares no one. “Thank God for Skype,” she says. But still, technology can do only so much.)

“As a costume designer,” she says, “what I like about these four plays as a collection is that each is set in its own distinct style period. First World War. Make-believe. Regency. The Twenties.”

Williams was not familiar with Billy Bishop the Canadian hero or Billy Bishop the play, “which meant the initial challenge was researching it in order that it would be historically correct,” she says. “Then, although I usually know where to ‘get things,’ I was a stranger here, I had absolutely no idea.”

Fortunately, Charity Gadica, the Globe’s head of wardrobe, did. Most of the costume pieces for Billy Bishop Goes to War were rented from a store in Vancouver that specializes in the military. Says Williams: “Everything about it had a nice quality to it.”

Jacob James, who plays Billy, was fitted in a uniform that shows Bishop at his highest rank. It was far more difficult, but not impossible, to dress the Piano Player, because Zachary Flis stands 6-foot-2 and there weren’t a lot of fighter pilots that tall in the First World War; the cockpits were simply too small.

From director Max Reimer and Billy Bishop, Williams moved to the Shumiatcher Sandbox Series production of Midsummer [a play with songs]. Here again a significant number of the costume pieces were borrowed, this time from the performers, Clinton Carew and Amy Matysio, who were, of course, reimbursed. This show’s greatest demand on Williams was to provide Matysio with a cocktail dress and a bridesmaid’s gown that would facilitate as smooth a costume change as possible because the character, Helena, does not leave the stage.

There was also the fact that the bridesmaid’s gown had to be funny without upstaging the humorous actress who was wearing it. “Costumes are accessories, they do not perform,” Williams says. “I hate ‘comedy costumes.’ It’s up to the actors to make the audience laugh.”

Which brings us to The Wizard of Oz and Joey Tremblay.

“Joey and I have similar minds,” says Williams. “We think alike.”

The first decision to be made was whether the Globe production would strive to duplicate the look of the now-iconic feature film that came out of MGM’s Hollywood studios in 1939. “That went right out the window,” Williams says. “Nothing is stolen directly from the film.”

Nevertheless, as Williams points out, although the design of this show is drawn from the historical period that spans 1900 to 1930, it will incorporate some key elements from the movie. Dorothy, she says, will look like Dorothy, right down to her ruby slippers, “or else the children would kill me!” The other things that will not be tampered with, in terms of their looks, are the Flying Monkeys and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

What is distinctive about the Globe production is that the characters in the L. Frank Baum story will emerge out of handcrafted toys, from figurines in Dorothy’s room in the farmhouse in Kansas that were made by Auntie Em. “It’s not even trying to look like the film,” Williams says. “This is our own world.”

For Williams herself, the design of the show emphasizes the strong connection she feels with her family as the youngest of eight children born to a man and woman who recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Her mother and father met during the World War II, when he was serving his country in the Royal Navy and she was working in a bank. The family was based initially in Bath, and relocated to Hull (in Yorkshire) where her father, an historian, taught at the university. Williams now makes her home in Bath once again.

Following her mother’s example, by the time she was 12 years old Williams was making and selling jewelry and from there she moved on to clothing. These skills, along with an education in art school as a sculptor, are the foundations of her career as a costume designer who is equally comfortable working in theatre and film. “I have no formal training as a designer,” she says. “It’s an advantage in a way. I do my own thing.”

Over the last couple of decades, Williams has progressed through the ranks from wardrobe mistress to supervisor to designer. She has advanced mostly by reputation and with the help of an ever-expanding network of contacts. “I’m not good at all that schmoozing stuff,” she says. “I came into it in a roundabout way and I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.”

The connection to Regina was forged during the late winter and early spring of 2011. Williams had designed the costumes for a West End production of Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls and the Mirvish company wanted to bring it to Canada where it would be staged exactly as it had been in London. Before it opened its run in Toronto, it was spruced up with three performances at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. Crystal L. Spicer, the Globe’s director of production, was then working at MTC, and obviously Williams left a favourable impression. It was through that link the invitation was extended and accepted.

“Without a moment’s hesitation. I jumped at it,” Williams says. “And here I am!”

Emma’s costume designs can be seen on the Globe Theatre stage during The Wizard of Oz, Pride and Prejudice, and The Drowsy Chaperone. For more information, visit the Globe Theatre website at www.globetheatrelive.com.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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