KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Costume designer Marianne Custer has wrapped actors in plastic wrap, cracked open a VCR for costume parts and sewn fake hair into bonnets.
Over four decades, Custer has done wonders with fabric, feathers and quick changes that required extremely long zippers. She’s designed from Knoxville to Istanbul in shows from Shakespeare to Steinbeck. Her favorite — the dress she loved so much she designed it for three productions — involves tiny red sequins and country music legend Patsy Cline.
Custer is resident designer of the University of Tennessee Clarence Brown Theatre, a UT theater professor and head of the department’s Master of Fine Arts design program. Plain-spoken with a love of art, theater and literature, she’s taking her final CBT bow.
She officially retired from UT last year but returned one last season, wanting to work with design graduate students another year. “Urinetown, the Musical,” playing through May 6, is her last CBT show. Her designs help delineate between wealthy “Urinetown” citizens in 1980s-inspired, well-tailored dark suits and its poor in what she calls clothes of “colorful filth.”
The Minneapolis native stresses she’s leaving UT but not theater. “I still love what I do,” she says. She’s now freelancing. This fall, she will design costumes for a Charleston, South Carolina theater’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Custer’s designed — and sometimes cut and sewn — costumes for plays from the experimental to the classics. Her first CBT show in 1974 was the 15th-century morality play “Everyman.” Her work reads like must-know theater, including “As You Like It,” ”Pygmalion,” ”Medea,” ”Grapes of Wrath,” ”A Streetcar Named Desire,” ”Merchant of Venice” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
While she’s “not a big musical person,” she designed for plenty, from “West Side Story” to “The Music Man” to what would become the 1979 Broadway show “Sugar Babies.”
Created by then UT theater head Ralph Allen, “Sugar Babies” was a tribute to theatrical burlesque. It began as the 1976 CBT production “The New Majestic Follies and Lyceum Gardens Revue.” Every costume had to be “built,” not bought or found in a stock room.
“The night before I was to leave for New York to buy fabric for the costumes, he (Allen) changed all the numbers,” Custer recalled.
Custer’s first theater job had nothing to do with design. She performed as a mime in summer children’s theater as a University of Minnesota undergraduate.
“Rehearsals were really fun, developing how you would be this inanimate object. But once you started performing, it was the same old thing every day. I thought, ‘This acting business is for the birds.’ ”
When the theater designer needed help, Custer volunteered to create a painter’s smock. “I thought, ‘You know, this is really fun. This is what I want to do.’ ”
She came to UT in 1974 as a costume designer and assistant theater professor. It was her second job after University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate school. She hated her first, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, so badly that she began looking for work within months. “I came here thinking I better stay at least two years or I’m going to get a reputation for being flighty.”
She had no time to be flighty. The department was small; there’d be no MFA design program until she began it around 1982. Custer worked 16-hour days seven days a week, designing and often sewing for multiple shows. Her early-year help was an assistant “and a couple of students.”
Sometimes what Custer terms “semi-riveting theater” can be the most interesting from her view. Sometimes CBT shows “audiences hated the most” were those she most enjoyed designing.
Take the 1996-1997 “The Bronte Cycle,” in which seven actors took on multiple roles. “I had to figure out a way that people could become other people without taking their clothes off” for costume changes, she said. Actors became villains by wearing bonnets covering their faces with black cloth. Actors wore pinafores while playing children and cast those garments off to act as adults. Her designs also included creating a very large mastiff puppet.
The 1999-2000 season’s “The Millennium Project” also wasn’t an audience hit. But the futuristic show challenged Custer. She wrapped actors in plastic and used hardware store plumbing bits and VCR internal parts to create some characters’ caps. “I love doing stuff like that. I like the shows that demand more of me intellectually, that are more than just making historic costumes.”
No matter its style, nearly every costume must be designed as a quick change. One method — long, long zippers. Custer’s used them in “Urinetown.” Women’s skirts have zippers from the waist to the hem. One tug off stage and the skirt’s off.
Custer liked one costume so much she designed it for three productions of “Always Patsy Cline,” two at CBT and a third at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It’s her favorite dress for her favorite Cline song, “Crazy,” in a “fun show.”
She created the gown as a classic Cline look — a belted shirtwaist with turned-up collar and sleeves rolled at the elbows — done in material of tiny red sequins. “I just felt it was perfect and I couldn’t top it.”
To Custer, a costume designer is “in essence, a storyteller.”
“Some people tell stories with words. Other people tell stories with pictures. Costume designers tell stories with pictures that have to be worn and moved — and get changed really fast.”