BU Today feature: Bringing a Whale of a Show to Life

Chelsea Kerl (CFA’14) makes costumes for Moby Dick.

This article originally appeared in BU Today on December 12, 2019. By John O’Rourke. 

Chelsea Kerl has designed costumes for nearly every theater company in the Boston area since graduating from the College of Fine Arts five years ago: Gloucester Stage (A Measure of Normalcy), New Repertory Theatre (The Little Prince), the Huntington Theatre Company (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (Beckett in Brief), and Wheelock Family Theatre (James and the Giant Peach) among them. In any given season, Kerl works on about 30 productions, and she’s also costume shop manager, costume designer, and an adjunct costume professor at Wellesley College. She is an instructor in BU’s Summer Theatre Institute as well.

But as staff costume technician at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Kerl (CFA’14) has taken on one of her most ambitious projects to date: constructing some of the dozens of costumes for the world premiere of a musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic tale of man vs. whale, Moby-Dick. The show is helmed by Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, the creative team behind the A.R.T’s 2015 production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, which went on to a successful Broadway run.

For this production, which runs December 11 to January 12, Kerl is responsible for bringing to life the period-inspired costumes designed by Brenda Abbandandolo. Over the past few months, she has been working with head draper Caitlin Menotti (CFA’10) to execute Abbandandolo’s whimsical designs, which incorporate elements of high fashion—not something you’d expect in a play set in a fishing village. Kerl has been cutting out pattern pieces, sewing, and preparing samples for different techniques to determine the best way to work with fabrics they haven’t used before. It’s exacting work.

“I might do three to five samples of different stitching techniques to figure out what we like best, and then I help Caitlin put things together and finish them,” Kerl says.

On a recent afternoon, she was in the A.R.T.’s costume shop at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square laboring over an orange skirt for the character Queequeg, a harpooner from the Pacific Islands. The skirt is so voluminous that it will take her and two colleagues nearly a week to construct it.

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