The tulle falls in sugary-white candy floss bunches from the ceiling beams. Mary, well-wrapped in winter woollies, works amongst it, in the warm blast of a tiny fan-heater. She has less than two days to finish creating this latest stage prop, dreamed up by John Verryt, the set designer for the World of WearableArt™ Awards Show.
The church’s ceiling beams, set high above the floor, provide the perfect work-space for a task too large for WOW’s sewing or props room.
As WOW’s soft props maker, Mary has years of experience sewing and clasping together every imaginable fabric – almost always on a grand scale.
“When I get that call, I freak out, every year” she laughs. “I always have an initial feeling of horror, wondering how on earth I’m going to make what they want. It’s always so big!”
She has just turned 69. By her own admission, she should be enjoying retirement by now with her husband Jack, but she just doesn’t know how to say “no.”
“It’s very hard to give up. Being back-stage is the most exciting place you could ever be.”
The props she has created over the years include a flying bed with unfolding wings, an enormous hat – so tall, it disappeared from view into the stage rigging; three giant brassieres which doubled as parachutes, billowing above cast members as they ‘high-wired’ down to the stage; and a giant chalice made with $5000 worth of silk.
And, the biggest, most-expensive prop which took Mary and another WOW seamstress Sandy Sixtus many weeks to sew was a pink, silky Burlesque-style circus tent – 10 metres tall, 30 metres in circumference and designed to fold up compactly. With the expertise of the stage rigging team, it magically unfurled and took on completely different shapes before the audiences’ eyes, night after night.
“I calculated the lines of sewing would be the same as the distance from my house into Nelson City – seven kilometres,” Mary remembers.
“The designer was Wellington artist Joe Bleakley, who gave me the exact measurements. I had never been given exact measurements before!
“In the early years, Suzie (WOW Founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff) would sketch her ideas onto whatever was nearby – sometimes it was onto the side of cardboard box, because the ideas would just spill from her. It was very exciting and we would just instinctively know how big a prop needed to be.”
With each assignment, there comes the condition: “make it so the audience cannot see how it works” – whether it’s unfurling wings, swathes of fabric opening to reveal cast members, or material detaching from other props and floating to the stage floor, to be whisked away by stage crew the moment the lights go down.
Prop creating has seen Mary bringing home an old bath from the tip, dying ‘acres of fabric’ in it on the front lawn, then hanging the fabric to dry on ropes tied to her trees. Another project meant fabric trailed from her sewing machine, out her front door and along the garden path.
It’s very likely New Zealand’s entire stock of white tulle will be on stage at the WOW shows in Wellington this September and October. Mary has spent several weeks working with 1850 metres of it, sourced from New Zealand, and – 1000 metres of it – from the United Kingdom. Her ‘secret saviour,’ is Stephen Shaw of Fabric Warehouse in Wellington, who has a knack for finding fabrics at a moment’s notice.
It also helps that Mary worked as a sail-maker for 11 years – a sewing career which gradually became more about making fully-lined wet–weather gear.
Having been in the audience for several of the early WOW shows staged in Nelson, Mary says she “caught the fever” early on and, with two friends, created a garment which won first prize in its category.
But when Dana Pratt – WOW’s original seamstress – needed a helping hand, Mary jumped at the chance to volunteer her sewing skills. Year after year, when the decisions had been made about the next show’s overall design, themes and choreography, Mary would be ready to sew.
Her days of making wet-weather gear became fewer and fewer, until she became a permanent member of WOW’s creative team.
With further encouragement from Dana Pratt, who was also a tutor in the Arts Department at the Nelson Polytechnic, Mary went back to school.
“I was 58 when I enrolled for the Visual Arts Course – probably the oldest student, ever!”
The first year was a rolling cycle of six-week-long courses, each concentrating on a different art form – from photography, woodworking and computer studies to making jewellery, sketching and painting.
“I loved every minute of it. Everything we covered, I wanted to spend my life doing!”
At about the same time, a costumier from Denmark – Anne Auker – worked at WOW, teaching Mary “a more advanced and more technical side to costume-making.”
And, huge inspiration came from artist Letty MacPhedran (recently involved in making “The Hobbit’ movie).
“Letty loosened up my attack on things. She painted what we were going to make; then the paintings would roll around on the floor, yet they were so beautifully-done, they should have been framed. Nothing she does is ever just standard. She is a remarkable artist.”
“I have met and worked with so many amazing, creative people. It’s always about teamwork at WOW.”
– Victoria Clark