Now for something a little different…. This is my first post in a series of interviews from Sydney based professionals who have made a career out of their love of sewing. I sure hope you all find this idea as interesting as I do.
Our first cab off the rank is the lovely Marissa Dale-Johnson who I met on a production of Othello I did earlier this year (for those of you that don’t already know acting is my day job).Marissa works as a production designer in the theatre and film industry as well as running her own ETSY shop where she sells her beautiful burlesque costume creations. She also performs on a regular basis as her alter ego Miss Maple Rose. Here’s what she had to say.
Tell us how you first got into sewing?
The one and only skill my mother insisted upon me was to know how to sew. I come from a short family; so taking up pants is a common activity in my house. When I was six, the Swansea Community Centre in my hometown of Toronto began to offer children’s’ sewing classes every Sunday and my mother pretty much shoved me into the classroom. I began by making simple things like book covers and pincushions and by the time I was ten I could read sewing patterns and make my own clothes. During my teenage years, sewing took a back seat while I danced ballet, but always came in handy when I needed to sew on ribbons or take up a pair of pants.
How does sewing relate to your work as a production designer?
I came into production design through set work as I have my bachelors in architectural studies, but it became prominent in my first couple of years that in Australia’s industry a designer needs to be able to do both costume and set. I think I was lucky to have had a history in an obsession with vintage fashion. Many production designers don’t sew and primarily source costumes for independent shows through cheap shopping, borrowing from big theatres or getting someone else to make key items. But there are always some alterations that need to be done and if you don’t sew you need to bring in someone else and that can be expensive. I have only made less than a handful of items for theatre productions due to the quick turn over, but it has been really handy to just rely on my own skills to alter costumes to fit the actors perfectly. But in the instance that I need a very specific costume that I can’t find, it’s reassuring to know that I can just whip it up in a few days.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment I’m just finishing up my Masters in Art majoring in sculpture, performance and installation, so I’ve taken a little break from theatre to focus on my major works. I’ve linked these projects to my other life, and my sewing obsession: Burlesque. I perform as a burlesque artist around Sydney and adore making my own costumes. I have just applied for Miss Burlesque Australia so my main focus at the moment is designing grand showgirl costumes for the big stage. I’m approaching MBA as a promotional tool for my costuming abilities, so there is more bling, more feathers and more pizzazz than any costume I’ve made.
Rehearsal image from Sport for Jove’s theatre production of Othello in 2013 which she designed the set and costumes for.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the complete flexibility of artistic expression. Every theatre show has a different aesthetic so I’m continuously educating myself on the history of fashion, art, design and architecture, as well as dappling in a variety of skills to get the job done. I’m as equally as handy with the drill and the paintbrush as I am with my sewing machine. I keep adding new skills to my repertoire such as jewelry and woodwork to help me get the job done. Sydney’s independent theatre scene usually has very low funds, so the more you can do to realize your design the better it becomes.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I find the most challenging part of my job is the lack of time versus the amount of stuff that has to get done. When I’m designing both set and costume for an independent show, there is so much to do to build the set as well as sourcing all the costumes, then altering them, as well as sourcing props and dressings; it’s a lot of running around and shoving on different hats. Then in production week, you usually have 1 day to bump-in the set and costumes before actors are on the stage playing around and getting accustomed to it. The more you get done in the early stages, the easier it’s going to be down the track.
What drew you to the world of Burlesque?
Burlesque is a way for me to make the things that I want to make. Theatre shows are fantastic, but a lot of the stuff that’s coming out these days is modern where actors only really need to wear a t-shirt and jeans and that’s their costume. It’s not that exciting to a designer. Burlesque is all about the decadence. Feathers, sequins, velvets, silks, and crystals: the more the better. Burlesque is now more for women’s entertainment than it is for getting men off. Sure, men love it – they get to see tits, but women go to the shows to see the costumes as well as the confidence these performers have. They get inspired to feel sexy. Many women I meet at shows tell me they want to do it after watching us. It’s a fantastic way to show your dirty, sexy side while still being classy.
A very different Marissa as her burlesque persona Miss Maple Rose
What made you decide to open your ETSY store to sell your burlesque costumes?
Etsy is an easy way to get your work out there, domestically and internationally. I primarily make custom orders for burlesque performers as they usually come to me with their idea, but if they haven’t seen my work then they won’t trust what I can do. I had a lot of free time a few years ago and started my Etsy business by listing my corset samples that I had made. These were very frilly and cute, as Marie Antoinette and the cupcake look inspired me. Almost all of them have sold now, which I’m ecstatic about because my aesthetic has become much more sophisticated and refined since that first collection. I’m working on a new collection of simple sample corsets that buyers can custom order in their choice of fabric and additions. This will be a way to get more work out there as many performers usually decorate their own costumes for their act, so can either buy something simple from me and do it themselves or work with me to design a complete costume.
Marissa’s very popular first Etsy collection inspired by Marie Antoinette and cupcakes. Amazing!
Stay tuned for the next installment of my Career Sewists Series.