Event Coverage

Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance


The New York Public Library

By Melissa Minners


            Beginning November 17, 2008 and lasting until May 2, 2009, a new exhibition will be showcased at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery, at 40 Lincoln Plaza in New York City.  Featuring treasures from the Library’s archives, Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance is a multi-media exhibition of the dazzling works of the little-noted women without whose costume, set, and lighting designs and innovations the show could not have gone on in North America for the past hundred-plus years.  Conceptualized and co-curated by award-winning costume designer Carrie Robbins in collaboration with noted performance historian Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg Curator of Exhibitions for the Performing Arts Library, Curtain Call showcases the strong presence and progress of women within a field still dominated by men.

            Despite limited opportunities, women designers exerted significant influence on every major artistic movement since 1890.  From Caroline Siedle’s costume illustrations for The Belle of New York in 1897 to Anna Louizos’ 2008 Tony Award-nominated set design for In the Heights ; from the vast array of sketches from the staff designers who devised the never-ending parade of glamorous, exotic, and downright bizarre characters who strutted the revue stages of the Hippodrome, the Roxy and the Greenwich Village Follies to the grandeur of Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s masks for the Guthrie’s House of Atreus; from the Neighborhood Playhouse to the Metropolitan Opera House; the first moment of modern dance in America to the Golden Age of Broadway and the great regional stages, women have played an integral role in backstage design for centuries.

            Some of the names featured in this exhibit might be well recognized by theatre and fashion buffs—Aline Bernstein, Theoni V. Aldredge, Bonnie Cashin, Joan Personette, Irene Sharaff, Patricia Zipprodt. Co-curater Carrie Robbins work for the upcoming Broadway production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas are included in the show. Others names featured may be barely recognizable if at all—Beatrice Irwin, Gladys Monkhouse, Cora MacGeachy, Katharine H. Lovell, Kate Drain Lawson, or the once-dominant triumvirate known as Motley.  Infamous in name or not, these women’s trailblazing work and contributions to high-profile productions will be familiar to most.

            In addition to the lesson in backstage showbiz history, the exhibit takes visitors on a journey through the creative process.  “How do you turn a human actor into a believable lizard? How do you fashion armor that will move with a Fosse-flexed spine? Or make Peter Pan’s shadow disappear?” asks Jacqueline Z. Davis, The Barbara G. and Lawrence A. Fleischman Executive Director of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “Design for the stage takes into account so many unusual variables and challenges. This is a rare opportunity for the public to see the experimental passes designers take along the way to their ingenious solutions to problems of theme, concept, character, and sheer physical possibility. In some cases, they can see the trial-and-error and the finished product in the same room.

            Beginning with design illustrations and renderings from early 20th-century operettas, book musicals, dramas, opera, and the first lighting experiments for modern dance, the exhibition moves on to the designers for Broadway revues of the 1910s to 1930s and into the experimental theater movement of the ‘20s - ‘40s, where women held particular sway.  It follows this up with the mainstream of Broadway musicals and dramas, and set design contributions to the WWII effort at home and abroad.  The exhibit contains sections devoted to design for opera, the Shakespeare Festival movement, and fashion and interior designers who switch-hit for the stage.  The amazing costume collection is divided into sections on Dance, 19th Century, Shakespearean, Celebrities, Exotics, and Animals.

            Among the hundreds of items on display, visitors of all generations will recognize iconic objects of enchantment from every realm of live performance: the gown in which Constance Towers’ Anna waltzed with Yul Brynner's King to “Shall We Dance?”; Glinda’s blue Dior-inspired number from Wicked ; Richard Burton’s casual Hamlet garb; Hume Cronyn’s ass’s head (as Bottom at Stratford, Ontario); the wings from Angels in America; Beauty and the Beast’s Lumiere, a fire-eyed flying Beelzebub from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Dr. Faustus, and a Passion Play Queen Elizabeth so elaborate it comes with a multi-page instruction guide. Curtain Call also contains intricate set models from shows and operas many will have experienced full size—Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, Tom Sawyer, An American Tragedy and more—as well as innovations in lighting, from Beatrice Irwin’s correspondence with Ruth St. Denis to Jean Rosenthal’s legendary lighting plot for Billy the Kid to video demonstrations of the new wave of projection artists.

            Several of the designers themselves are present on film and videotape. “To see and hear these women speak about how they came to their work, the people and productions with which they’ve been involved, and the creative and professional hurdles they’ve cleared is inspirational,” says Joan Firestone, exhibition Project Director on behalf of the League of Professional Theatre Women and past Co-President of that organization, a not-for-profit advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the visibility and advancement of women in the performing arts.

            The multi-media exhibition features costumes of every kind and era, set models with their accompanying boxes full of handmade miniature denizens and décor, lighting plots, sketches and illustrations, research notes, fabric swatches, presentation renderings, costume bibles, production photographs, props, festival figures, autographed Broadway Bears from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, correspondence, and interviews and performance videos drawn from the Library’s collections as well as items on loan from the Museum of the City of New York, the José Limón Dance Foundation, the Martha Graham Dance Company, several North American regional theaters and individual designers.

            The exhibition catalogue, edited by Alexis Greene, includes essays by both curators with an introduction by theater historian Mary C. Henderson; graphic design is by Linda Florio.

            Admission to Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance is free.  Exhibition hours are: Monday and Thursday from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; closed Sundays and holidays.  For more information, call 212. 870. 1630 or visit the Library’s website at www.nypl.org.


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