Designing a milestone 100 shows at Weathervane Playhouse has come with a lot of creativity and satisfaction as well as wonderful memories and friendships for Jasen Smith, resident costume designer for the theater.
His latest mission is to create all the fun-in-the-sun and disco get-ups in the musical romp "Mamma Mia!" — set in 2000 on a fictional Greek isle — which will open at Weathervane Friday. The jukebox musical, whose score features a parade of beloved ABBA hits, follows the story of a young woman named Sophie as she tries to discover the identity of her father on the eve of her wedding at her mother Donna's taverna.
"It's happy and colorful and lots of day wear and beach resort," Smith said of the show's costumes.
In late May, Smith was working in the costume shop on a splashy maroon disco jumpsuit, pinning one of several butterfly appliques onto the pant leg of the costume. It will be worn by Chanda Porter as Tanya, Donna's friend from their days as disco queens Donna and the Dynamos.
The sequined, four-way stretch fabric, which he found at Zinck's Fabric Outlet of Berlin in Amish country, looked glitzy but was chosen so the actress could dance easily in "Super Trouper." That's a factor that Smith, who trained as an actor and dancer, always keeps in mind.
He was creating similar jumpsuits in different cuts for the disco trio of Donna, Tanya and Rosie. At another table, he was creating a sleeve for Rosie out of metallic velvet ribbons.
"You'll have a lot of movement and light," Smith said of the ribboned sleeve, which will anchor at the wrist but provide a lot of openness between ribbons.
Zinck's is Smith's fabric and accessory mecca as a costume designer: "It's a place that's budget friendly and feeds my soul," he said.
For "Mamma Mia!", he's found a number of vintage or vintage-look pieces and is constructing 11 costumes, including nine fabulous disco jumpsuits and two bridesmaids' dresses.
"Back in the mid- to late '90s, the '70s were popular again," he said of the retro choices.
For this fun show, deliveries were coming in from everywhere from California to New York for scuba-diving flippers, platform boots and fabrics in a burst of colors for more disco designs for "Mamma Mia's" celebratory "Waterloo" finale.
Smith, 46, is an Alabama native who majored in acting at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. There, he had his first opportunity to sew in a costume shop and also worked as a student intern in the costume shop at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a seminal experience in his growth as a designer.
The designer, who previously worked at Akron Design and Costume, first came to Weathervane as a volunteer to help with "The Rocky Horror Show" in 2006. He assumed the new position of resident designer in 2008.
Smith is celebrating his 100th production at Weathervane with a retrospective of his many creations in the theater's Harris Family Gallery for the run of "Mamma Mia!" It will feature a number of his favorite costume designs on mannequins as well as photo displays from some 20 of his favorite shows. (To see his designs over the years, check out #jasens100th and #jasenmakesprettythings on Instagram and Facebook.)
The first show Smith designed at Weathervane was "Children of Eden,'' which remains one of his top 10 favorites. He added interest to the show's simple clothing by doing ombre dyeing, tie dyeing and distinctive paint stamping so audiences could see that characters such as young Cain and Abel and older Cain and Abel were the same characters.
He loves seeing how his designs translate onstage with the actors: "The actors create the inside and I create the outside," he explained. "It [the costume] helps them physically be a part of the time and the storytelling."
Smith appreciates it when directors with a vision for their show push him as a designer.
"I love and hate every show," he said.
That includes "Oklahoma," a period show set in 1906 he said he never wanted to do before because he thought it was antiquated. Smith ended up loving the show, though, a huge job in which he made a bevy of long, full skirts and full petticoats for all of the women amid building 78 costume pieces. This massive process required 45 minutes just to pin one voluminous dress.
Another show that pushed him artistically was working with director Sarah Bailey on the musical "Honk." He created scores of costumes that evoked bird characters yet still retained the human look of each actor. Smith based all of his colors on British birds and used ruffles to create feather patterns on the costumes.
His sources of inspiration are endless, including the embroidered Nigerian wedding fabrics laid over taffeta that he used for the period drama "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" in 2018.
In one of Smith's hardest shows, he had 40 seconds each night to get roller skates onto a male actor sitting in an onstage phone booth for "Xanadu." Adding to the challenge, the actor (Scott Miesse) was sitting on a platform with his legs dangling, unable to help. Below, Smith stood on a ladder and reached above his head to get the skates on the actor, all by feel.
Smith has also designed for shows he has acted in at the theater, including the beautiful drama "Intimate Apparel," in which he, appropriately, played fabric salesman Mr. Marks.
His work has ranged from the sublime to the silly. The latter includes his outrageous designs for the mermaid tops that he created for all male actors in "Peter and the Starcatcher," which included himself. Smith fit pieces of elastic around each guy's chest and accessorized them with treasure boxes, Chinese food takeout containers, fans and popcorn boxes.
Smith lives in Akron's North Hill with his partner, John Catlos, and their four dogs, Katie, Riley, Sasha and Lily. He has enjoyed creating costumes for actors of all personalities, shapes and sizes for more than a decade now at Weathervane.
"There's been a lot of amazing people in and out of these doors. People that come in as strangers and end up as my family," he said. "Every year I get Father's Day cards" from young actors with whom he has worked.
Smith was told by a professor in college that he wasn't talented enough or good looking enough to make acting a career. His key college mentor, though, Fiona Macleod, championed him on his path to becoming a costume designer.
Here's what Smith has to say to young actors: "I want them to flourish. I want them to be whole people. And I want them to not listen to the words that society tells them that 'You're not right, you're not perfect.' When you come to Weathervane, you are enough."
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.