MATTIE ULLRICH: Costume Designer Mattie Ullrich is a woman of many talents. For example, there's basketball. This summer she designed the Off Broadway sleeper Joe Fearless, a play about basketball fans, which takes place on a basketball court. With her experience, it was the perfect job. "I've played basketball since I was five; that's when I was on my first team," she says. "My father was the local varsity coach. When I started on the show, they didn't believe me, so I played a game with them. They believed me then." She adds, laughing, "The other night, I won the free-throw competition at intermission!"
On the other hand, it would seem that Ullrich has had a date with costume design from the beginning. "I designed all the shows in high school," she says. Also, as a teenager, she worked in a costume house in San Diego, near her hometown of Vista, CA. "It had the most amazing treasures," she recalls. "You'd find a real 1920s dress next to a dress from the 80s." The costume house supplied clothing for various area theatres and to the general public. "Halloween was huge," she recalls. "I was always in the back, making some funky thing for somebody." Still, she adds, the place provided her with a real education. "I knew my periods even before I got to college. I learned how to drape."
Armed with this experience, she headed off for the North Carolina School of the Arts. "We really worked hard there," she says. "We would have crew from 7 to 11, then we had to go home and do homework." After graduation, she got an internship on Saturday Night Live, where she worked with costume designer Tom Broecker. Next was a stop at Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she designed La Ronde, directed by Joanne Woodward, and co-designed Hard Times. She also picked up some valuable film experience, working as a shopper for Ann Roth on the films Primary Colors, In and Out, and Hush.
Now based in New York, she began designing Off Broadway. One production, Hazelwood Junior High, which opened in March 1998, was a turning point in her career. Rob Urbanati's script is a disturbing, fact-based story about Midwestern teenage girls who, in the late 80s, murder one of their own. Director Scott Elliot staged the play in a Manhattan junior high school auditorium; Ullrich's costumes, with their multitude of evocative details, helped add to the production's unsettling authenticity. "Scott Elliot taught me how to be a costume designer," she says, "how to make someone look like they just walked out of a Wal-Mart."
Hazelwood Junior High was a production of the prestigious company The New Group. Ullrich continued working there, with Elliot, the artistic director, on a variety of productions. The New Group often presents highly naturalistic dramas that focus on unusual subcultures. Ullrich's designs for the company include East Is East (about Pakistanis living in a suburb of Manchester, England in the late 1970s), and Cranes (about Russian Jews living in Louisiana in the 80s). Such plays, she says, "are so specific, and hard to research." Nevertheless, she finds a way. She combed through vintage boutiques and the Salvation Army for East Is East. For Cranes, she notes that the characters, all immigrants, drew their notions of fashion from television, so she dressed a young girl a la Debbie Gibson, while the older women wore looks copied from Dynasty and other TV soaps. "They would have the best mall clothes you could possibly buy," she says. Speaking of her work, Elliot says, "Mattie's truth to her characters and her honest approach keep me coming back for more. Her great fashion sense and attention to detail make all the artists involved in our collaborations love her. Her effervescent personality doesn't hurt, either."
With her New Group credits, it would be easy to type Ullrich as a specialist in modern naturalism. But she rushes to add that her resume is more varied than that, with productions of Don Giovanni and La Boheme for Opera Theatre of Philadelphia as well as Macbeth for The Juilliard School and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore for New York Performance Alliance. "I really knew I was cut out to be a designer when I did `Tis Pity," she says. "It was Prada in leather, mixed with a Victorian silhouette." She's particularly proud of Much Ado About Nothing, for Expanded Arts. "I did it on $100," she says. "Dolce & Gabbana had come out with an Empire dress, like in the movie Emma. I did a spinoff of that look for the women; the men wore these beautiful vintage tuxedos. It was a very pretty little show."
Her most recent credits include Joe Fearless and another new play, Full Bloom, produced by the Barrington Stage Company, in Great Barrington, MA. "It's about a girl who grows up beautiful and can't handle it. The show has a very contemporary look. I get a lot of teenager shows."
As we go to press, however, the most pressing production on her mind is her own wedding, scheduled for September. "That's its own production," she says. "I'm sewing my bridesmaids' dresses." Expect them to be meticulous, up-to-the-minute, and perfect for the occasion.