Dressing the stars: a star designer. Leona Brausen creates stroll-by theatre in a costume installation at the Varscona

The figure of Viola Desmond in Hero Material, a Leona Brausen costume installation at the Varscona Theatre. Photo by Davina Stewart

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

So what do wealthy socialites wear to dinner parties in ‘30s Budapest anyhow? Or to auctions in ’20s upstate New York?

Breezy playboys in ‘50s Manhattan with their pleated trousers, worn high and sharp like their wits? Meat-packing magnates and their spoiled offspring in ‘80s Edmonton? Earnest graduates of the Southern Ontario Business College For Women, on mind-broadening trips abroad in the ‘30s?

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Leona Brausen has dressed them. For nearly four decades, she has been designing impeccable vintage costumes for theatre, and especially for Teatro La Quindicina, purveyors par excellence of original period comedy. Costumes that — in motion, with characters inside them — identify a time and a place with as much precision and wit as any set piece, or shard of exposition, or stage direction.

Now, when we can’t actually go into theatres, you can see Brausen’s work in a stroll-by theatrical experience. She has dipped into her vast personal hoard of vintage costumes, wigs, and accessories to create the costume installation that now occupies the Varscona Theatre front windows on 83 Ave. Hero Material, which opened on International Women’s Day (produced by fellow actor/improv partner Davina Stewart), is an homage to four inspiring and influential Canadian women, each with a distinctive story and look.

First to be conjured, till the end of the month, is black activist/entrepreneur Viola Desmond, who fought racial segregation in the ‘40s. After that, Emily Carr, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and k.d. lang in three-week runs.

The Viola Desmond accessory display, Hero Material, a Leona Brausen costume installation at the Varscona Theatre. Photo by Davina Stewart.

The Viola Desmond mannequin, whose hair is a coiffed mauve roll of a ‘do, dominates one window in a splendidly cut ‘40s suit, with covered buttons and big ‘40s shoulders. She’s clutching gloves, with a coat slung over one arm. Stewart wore that suit as the redoubtable theatre pioneer Mrs. Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, after whom Edmonton’s theatre awards are named, in Darrin Hagen’s play Witch Hunt at the Strand. Cathleen Rootsaert wore it as Mrs. Elvsted in a Teatro production of Hedda Gabler (Stewart was in the title role).

Another window showcases a collage of accessories, including a ‘40s perfume bottle, and various cosmetic accoutrements (Desmond was the proprietor of a beauty product line designed for black women).

“Leona doesn’t build, she finds,” says Teatro’s Stewart Lemoine, her admiring old friend from high school, and the playwright with whom Brausen has most often worked as an actor and designer. Their shows together date back to Teatro’s birth at the very first Fringe with a new comedy, All These Heels. Brausen played, as she has described it succinctly, “a lady spy who smoked.”

Where does she do the finding? Deep-diving into her own inventory. The astonishing Brausen collection of suits, coats, hats, frocks, shoes, wigs, purses is crammed into her north-end house (the shoe department is in the basement) and backyard shed. In the period Brausen (and Teatro) loves, the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, Teatro actors don’t wear replicas; they wear originals, acquired by Brausen pre-emptively shopping here and there, especially New York and London vintage shops.

Mother of the Year, Teatro La Quindicina (an ’80s comedy spun from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus). Costumes by Leona Brausen. Photo supplied.

“She’s pretty uncompromising in terms of accuracy. The costumes are perfectly of the period,” says Lemoine. “But they suddenly become something the actors would wear… Everybody wears the clothes of the time; they look right. But everybody has a sense of themselves too. As well as the character.”

Andrea House in Skirts On Fire, set in ’50s Manhattan. Teatro La Quindicina. Photo by Mat Busby.

And there’s a kind of genius in that. “Leona is particular about the look … and here’s how to make it look good on you!” No wonder actors really enjoy costume fittings with Brausen. “They have the most laughs in the country because Leona is hilarious,” says actor/director Ron Pederson, whose long list of Teatro starring roles goes back to his 14-year-old self (he often calls Teatro his education). Lemoine’s Shocker’s Delight is his favourite play ever; he was in the 2004 revival and directed a production of it in 2017.   

“The word is VIVID,” he says on the subject of Brausen costumes. “When you put a Leona costume on you suddenly know what to do as an actor; it gives you the who, what, when and the where instantly. She’s put me in lederhosen, smoking jackets tuxedos, pyjamas, wigs, tights, hats, all Stratford quality and usually divined and found like magic…. It’s also a miracle how things fit just from her eyeballing it.”

“Leona’s work always does half the actors job; and often most of the scenery’s job too.”

For a small company with a taste for period comedy in exotic locations (like Venice in the ‘50s or Providence Rhode Island 1931, or the Eaton’s cafeteria in Winnipeg c. 1966), Brausen’s costumes are indispensable, says Lemoine. “They fill in gaps in place and time.”

How do you convey Jasper National Park in the ‘50s, the setting for Lemoine’s 2011 comedy Mrs. Lindeman Proposes, without a bunch of mountains or a chalet? “Leona did a major plaid dump,” says Lemoine. “So many plaids onstage that … supplied a rustic kind of quality, and evoked the era, kind of an elegant outdoorsy look.”

Shannon Blanchet, centre, in Mrs. Lindeman Proposes, Teatro La Quindicina. Costumes by Leona Brausen. Photo supplied.

In that comedy Shannon Blanchet wore “costume I would live in if I could,” she says. “A full swishy purple skirt with a plaid shirt, fantastic wide poodle-studded belt (with matching red shoes), plaid blouse with wide brim hat. I have never felt prettier onstage that I did in that costume. Appropriate because my character Margot Mitchinson, was in pursuit of beauty and romance, to a fault.”

For the fast-talker character Dominica D’Eath Blanchet played in The Salon of the Talking Turk, set in ’20s New York, Brausen arrived  “with this insanely perfect wig” à la Louise Brooks. And she even brought perfume so Louise Lambert and I could smell our characters. Come on, how amazing is that!?”

Andrew MacDonald-Smith in yellow shoes (left), in The Scent of Compulsion, Teatro La Quindicina. Costume designer Leona Brausen. Photo supplied.

Teatro star Andrew MacDonald-Smith, the company’s new co-artistic producer (with Belinda Cornish), has a favourite Brausen costume piece. For The Scent of Compulsion, a Lemoine screwball set in the early 70s, “Leona found these incredible yellow shoes for my character,” he says. “They were by far the most uncomfortable shoes I’ve ever worn, but I couldn’t let them go. I wouldn’t take them off when I wasn’t on stage to relieve my poor feet for even a brief moment ….Every costume in that show was a revelation, but those shoes still appear in my dreams for eternity.”

Blanchet has one of those fixations, too. For The Infinite Shiver, “the script had me enter in a Rosie the Riveter look. Leona found these amazing jeans that, as with many pieces over the years, I offered to buy from her after the run…. Unfortunately for me, they were so unique that Leona wanted to keep them in her collection long-term.”

“Had I been thinking clearly at the time I would have murdered her for them,” she jokes. “This is the power of Leona Brausen. Her work inspires you to push yourself to new places….”

Footnote: Brausen once kitted me out for a Halloween foray as “a salad person.” It’s not easy to imagine how to transform someone into lettuce for a night out, but she did: green leafy everything, including hair. The wooden tongs around my neck were a nice touch.

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