Costuming a Tlingit 'Macbeth' proves to be a 'rewarding challenge'

Morris produces Native costumes with 'pre-contact feel'

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2004

Unlike set designer Robert H. Davis, "Macbeth" costume designer Nikki Morris was familiar with some of Shakespeare's work. A former actor, she appeared in a few of the poet's plays in high school and college.

Morris's first task, then, was to familiarize herself with Northwest Coast motifs and figure out how she could apply those designs to fabric and still support the roles of an Elizabethan-era play.

"It's one thing to produce just a costume, but Tlingit artifacts, clothing and items are so highly ornamental that it's been a challenge - a rewarding challenge," she said. "Aesthetically, the costumes are an extension of Northwest Coast design. If you went to the museum and saw a traditional blanket, we're not aiming to replicate that."

Morris, a Wooshketaan of the Eagle/Shark house, has been designing costumes at Perseverance Theatre since moving to Juneau in 1990. For "Macbeth," she collaborated with Davis and director Anita Maynard-Losh.

Davis developed the crest symbols in the play. For Macbeth, for instance, Morris designed armor, a helmet, a blanket and an ornamental collar decorated with a crab. For the Kooshdaa kaa, she designed large, furry tunics, with fabric-painted treatments around the hands, that resemble land otters.

Maynard-Losh added another twist to the costume design. She wanted the adaptation to have a "pre-European contact feel."

"I went through all the resources, written documentation, any photos; I just tried to find any information I could about pre-contact," Morris said. "I was amazed at the innovations that I found, and the different materials that may have been used: plant matter and different things that were going to disintegrate. I thought that was really inspiring."

That also gave her the freedom to try out her own ideas. Traditionally, crests would have been woven on to the collars. Morris used silk painting.

"It seemed richer-looking, painting on a fabric," she said.

Pre-contact meant Morris couldn't design button blankets - traditional woolen blankets, usually in black and red or red and navy blue, with cutout designs and buttons around the border. Pre-contact artisans did not use buttons or beads.

"You see so much use of bone," Morris said. "You don't see beadwork, skins or weaving."

Overall, it was much like working on a puzzle, she said.

"There's a level of satisfaction when you can work successfully within the parameter," Morris said. "These costumes weren't mass produced. They're representing our culture and our values and our pride. The actors understand that, and I think it helps raise the bar for everyone."

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