Murell Horton’s costume designs can currently be seen in The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Government Inspector. Other STC credits include Edward II, Hamlet , Titus Andronicus, Lorenzaccio, Richard III, Hamlet , The Silent Woman, Hedda Gabler, Camino Real and The Liar. Other regional theatre credits include productions at Denver Theatre Center, Cleveland Play House, Philadelphia Theatre Company, and Berkshire Theatre Festival. NYC credits include productions at The Julliard School, The Acting Company and Houston Grand Opera. As if costuming shows are not enough for Murell he has designed sets and costumes for shows at The Pearl Theatre Company. He designed costumes for Michael Kahn’s world premiere production of Lysistrata which played the Houston Grand Opera and also in NYC. He is a four time Helen Hayes Award nominee and has received the 2007 Irene Sharaff Young Master Award for costume design. We have included several pictures and sketches of Murell’s work to give you a sample of this great talent.
What was your first professional costume design job?
My first professional costume design was at The Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA. I designed Mad Forest directed by John Rando and The Game of Love and Chance for Richard Corley. Another show I did there Desire under the Elms led to me working at The Juilliard School. I did a very dark and elegantly decaying version of The Cherry Orchard directed my Brian Mertes. That show, in turn is how Michael Kahn saw my work. He asked me to design costumes for Camino Real here in D.C. This is now my 12th season at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Can you please tell us about the costume concept for The Government Inspector?
The play is set in Russia in 1836. It’s a small, sad country town in the middle of nowhere. The characters imagine themselves as more important and much more grand than their stations. I find tying a show to a concept is difficult and limiting. I suppose it is the best way to describe how directors, designers, and actors get going in the same direction. My first approach to the costumes was to make it very real in terms of period clothing style. After talking to Michael Kahn it became clear that the style should be more “pushed.” The period of the clothing is often what people are first concerned about. My response is usually that in life people don’t dress in a particular period, but instead wear their personalities.
How long does it typically take you to design a production?
The time involved varies depending on the size and scope of the production. In the larger regional theatres a designer is often contracted 6-8 months in advance. Opera houses often work a full year on a production. The design process starts by reading the script, breaking it down into character tracking and piece lists. Then researching the history, social behaviors and fashion of the time. After that, meetings with the director, drawings, fabric swatches, reworking drawings and purchasing fabrics. The next steps are negotiating the ideas that have been settled on through the shop. This includes budget discussions, draper meetings, and often meetings with actors. On a larger show I will make 4 or 5 trips to a city to do fittings. One round of fittings in cheap muslin to “mock up” the shapes, a second fabric fitting, and a third to adjust and add finishing touches. There are also wig consultations and fittings. The actual time I log in is hard to keep track of. As a director once told me “working on a show is like having a worm turning in your head”. Meaning no matter what else you are doing, it’s impossible to stop thinking about a current production. I’ll be walking down the street, looking at magazines, having conversations with friends and see what strangers are wearing and think “that could work in the show.”
What is the oddest costume request a director has given you?
I’ve accidently established a reputation of designing the odd or at least exaggerated. So, at this point it’s a matter of degrees. I’m not always able to tell what another person will consider unusual. I did a show in the East Village many years ago. The script included a sad clown in very elaborate and fanciful dress that took forever for me to construct by myself. After I thought that I had successfully answered all the needs of the script, the director, and actor the costume goes on stage and the director asks me (out loud and in front of everyone in the theatre) “so how are we going to shoot the clown in the back and make him bleed?”
You have designed at some of the country’s biggest regional theatres. What are some of your favorite productions?
I am honestly, honored to get to do what I do for a living. Every show is an exciting adventure where I get to explore many lives and meet all sorts of people. Michael Kahn has always encouraged me to be creative and has given me many opportunities. At the top of the list would be Lysistrata written by Mark Adamo, an opera that Michael asked me to design at Houston Grande Opera and New York City Opera. It was silly, sexy and very emotionally moving all at the same time. The Liar at the Shakespeare Theatre Company was one of the funniest and I think most beautiful shows that I’ve gotten to design. Titus Andronicus was also done here at STC and directed by Gale Edwards. I talked to Gale about approaching it visually like an adult graphic novel. I think the result was very simple and stunning. All of the design elements worked together in an odd, dark way. A few years ago Ethan McSweeny asked me to design Arms and the Man at the Guthrie. Everyone involved seemed to have a fantastic time in the fittings and the actors were genuinely grateful for the work done on the clothes and characters. It’s really hard to choose favorites; it’s about the experience as much as it’s about how the clothes look.