While she's been a regular at our theater for 36 years, she was surprised to be called to the stage after the final performance of The Seagull on Sunday.
For more than three decades Betty has begun working on our shows as early as anyone, and she has probably logged more production hours than anyone else on our staff. Her name has never been up in lights. Her work is back of backstage. And yet there is no one who has more consistently raised the bar of our artistic quality. Betty Ross, as some of you know, has been our resident costume designer for the entire history of THEATREWORKS. And also my better half.
Some of you may think a costumer is the person who sits behind a sewing machine and makes dresses from old curtains so the show can go on. That would be right--and wrong. At our theatre, a modest theatre, our costumers do sit behind sewing machines for many hours. They also are budget conscious, so those old curtains might very well become the dowager's dress. But to stop there would be to radically underestimate the qualities required.
A long time ago, in Santa Barbara, an Australian psychic gave Betty a reading, telling her many things she would like to have been told (strange how this happens), including an encouragement to push ahead with her painting. In fact the psychic was right to tell her so, but in the process he allowed as how for Betty, costumes were nothing, for her making costumes was as easy as falling off a log. Had I been present I would have leaped at his throat. And while thrashing the wits out of him, I would have said, "Do you have any idea of how hard costume design is? Do you know how long it takes to imagine and then create a good costume? Do realize that a costume designer must understand a play, have a feeling for character, be grounded in art and social history, have an artist's sensibility, a rich understanding of fabric and materials, possess the resourcefulness of a great scavanger, the ability to dance with whimsical,fuzzy minded directors, the capacity for working long hours, patiently forebearing actors who deliberately put on weight, who regularly tear their trousers,and who come with feet never meant for shoes? Do you realize costume designers have to assemble teams of slave volunteers who toil endlessly and happily in sweatshop conditions? Compared to that, great oracle with the ponderous jaw, painting is easy--anyone can throw paint at a canvas. But to be a great costumer you have to have a degree in history and literature from Harvard, you have to have spent time curating at museums, collecting graduate degrees in theatre and in art history at Berkeley, you have to have spent a lifetime of looking hard at everything, and that's just for starters! It's costuming that's hard, O clueless psycho-babbler!"
It's fortunate for everyone that I was not present at this reading (the psychic also told Betty to beware of me; he called me too analytical, a "scapel brain"--- little did he know he might have been dealing with a psychopath).
I haven't finished my rant. The costume designer for the theater, for our theater, is also the least publically recognized figure of our artistic team. People sometimes applaud when the curtain goes up, looking at the set (and they would sometimes at our theatre too, if we had a curtain). Actors take their bows nightly to beating hands. Directors bask and accept congratulations. Costumers remain largely anonymous. So it was a fine thing when Betty Ross finally arrived on stage Sunday afternoon for the first and only time in her long life in the theater,to take a final bow after 26 years of amazing work that has produced over 1,000 great costumes. The cast was there, wearing a few of her clothes(she went out with a big Chekhovian bang--not a gunshot but a firework, a blaze of glory). Nancy Shanley and our advisory board was there, with flowers and gifts. And I'm happy to say that when Betty did finally get out on stage she got the standing ovation she richly deserved, including one from her not always uxorious husband.
To the psychic, I say: you had one clue--Betty should be painting, and she has been and she will be. To the many people who have sat and sewn and spun with Betty for so many years in the costume shop (Kristin, Jan, Jean, Liya ,Barbara, Lauren, Colin, and many more), I send my highest regards and appreciation. And to Betty, speaking as Artistic Director of THEATREWORKS, I'd just say,"Thanks, doll---you're the greatest."