Designing woman: Camilla Morrison

Master costumer brings world of Dr. Seuss to life on Burtness Theatre stage

When Camilla Morrison (right), costume designer and theater instructor at UND, walks into the costume shop, the mood brightens up in a hurry. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

When Camilla Morrison (right), costume designer and theater instructor at UND, walks into the costume shop, the mood brightens up in a hurry. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

The basement of Burtness Theatre crackled with activity on the first Friday of November.

The second production of the UND Theatre Arts season, Seussical, was less than a week away and half a dozen volunteers diligently labored on costumes.

As they worked, soft pop tunes waltzed around the costume shop, a room made small by racks overflowing with clothes, desks strewn with tools and tables crowded with students.

If not for the chorus of chuckles and music, drowning into the motley clutter, the place would have felt drab with its dearth of windows and neutral wall paint.

When Camilla Morrison, costume designer and theatre instructor at the University of North Dakota, walked into the shop in the early afternoon, it seemed to brighten up even more.

Her eyes sparkled under the beige rims of her eyeglasses as she sauntered around, jauntily asking, almost singing, “How is it going?”

“We have our first dress rehearsal on Sunday [Nov. 4], so we still have a lot of things that we need to do for costumes, but we have all day today and tomorrow to hustle,” she said. “I am very excited. It is at a point right now where it is like, ‘Ah, everything needs to be done quickly.’”

Seussical debuts on Thursday (Nov. 8) at UND’s Burtness Theatre. One of the most performed musicals in the United States, Seussical gathers a raft of beloved Dr. Seuss’ characters in a plot – largely based on the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hears a Who – that probes the themes of friendship, family and community and appeals to all ages.

Camilla Morrison

Morrison employs techniques known as “saturation” and “cel-shading,” to bring the adored characters of Dr. Seuss to life on stage. Cel-shading transforms three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional with the help of bold outlines of shadows and highlights. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Comic-book techniques

At UND, Seussical is a large production, involving a cast of more than 20 actors (some playing multiple roles) and countless hours of work.

Morrison began deconstructing and analyzing the show in the summer, after Director Brett Olson, instructor of movement, shared his sources of inspiration with her and  Brad Reissig, an threatre arts department chair and set-and-lighting designer.

Olson, a UND theatre arts alum, returned to the University for his first semester as a faculty member this fall. This is when in-person discussions about the production began.

Having served as a set designer for Seussical at Minot State University over the summer, he had quite a peculiar take.

“Going into the play, I wasn’t quite sure what the concept was,” Olson said. “And then, it kind of clicked one day that we should approach all of it as if the characters are comic-book characters.”

Morrison took the idea and ran with it, employing the technique of “cel-shading.” It denotes a design rendition that transforms three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional with the help of bold outlines of shadows and highlights. More often wielded in illustrations and video games, it is a method that flattens with the use of frames.

Morrison started out by executing elaborate sketches, which she penciled by hand, and pinning them to a costume shop board.

Taran Estad

Taran Estad, a UND design and technology student, got her first attempt at cel-shading, at which she seemed to excel, in the run-up to Seussical’s first showing at Burness Theatre. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Off the page

Most of the garments sport dark and light marks of acrylic paint, sharpies and paint markers to make them pop against the set, awash with intense red, white and blue.

To show the result, Morrison ventured to one of the dressing rooms across the costume shop and opened a wooden locker. It contained a couple of finished pieces as well as the topper for The Cat in the Hat. They all looked as if etched on and then torn from paper.

“We are asking them to jump off the page and onto the stage,” Morrison said of the characters.

Some of them she had previously dressed for Seussical Jr, a short variant of the musical performed by kids. It was nearly six years ago and in a theatre academy in Maryland.

This time around, Morrison has a much bigger responsibility – a full-length version with so many costumes that mere days before the premiere were still coming together.

Back in the shop, on a table in the far corner, a student contoured a black T-shirt with a brush. To the side rested a manual on how to create a drawing-like effect on apparel.

Taran Estad, design and technology student, had put it together. Seussical delivered her first attempt at cel-shading, at which she seemed to excel.

On that Friday afternoon, with no space in the costume shop, Estad settled for the makeup room. Under a string of vanity lights, she laid out a pair of tawny overalls and stretched the trousers. Thick black and white lines raced down the edges and swirled around several rips.

After almost a week of work, she had the bib pocket and suspenders left.

“I am hoping that [the costumes] bring this whole new world to life,” Estad said. “I hope [the audience] enjoys the newness of it.”

Seeing frames

To bolster the magical reality of Seussical, Morrison extended cel-shading from the costumes to the makeup.

Early on, she had snapped images of actors’ faces, traced dark lines on their features and taught them how to recreate the cartoon-like effect.

“They all get to follow a specific plan that I created for them,” said Morrison, adding that in the hectic hours before the musical opens every evening, actors will be responsible for their own makeup.

While the garb and cosmetics enliven Dr. Seuss’ critters, it is the actors who infuse them with an identity.

Olson, the show director, has been guiding students into the subtleties of their parts – who they are as characters, why they behave the way they do, what they think and feel at any given moment.

It is an exercise in building a stereotype – a frame – and then either breaking it or entrenching it, he said. And, it all comes with a deeper message about human interactions and perceptions.

Morrison added, “I hope that [the audience] leaves thinking about who they are within their community and what frame we see them in and what frame they want us to see them in.”

If you go:

Seussical debuts on Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. It runs through Nov. 10, and the weekend of Nov. 16-17. A matinee is slated for 2 p.m., on Nov. 17.

Seussical: the musical

Seussical is the next big production to hit the stage at UND’s Burtness Theatre. Image courtesy of UND Theatre Arts.