Mel Page has recently returned from Oslo, Norway to reunite with her long-time collaborators Lally Katz and Anne-Louise Sarks on the production of Minnie & Liraz. When director Anne-Louise approached Mel to design the set and costumes of Lally’s new play, she knew it was an opportunity that was hard to resist.
Anne-Louise and Mel’s creative partnership is tried and true. Most recently they created Jasper Jones for Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre. Similarly, Mel has worked on numerous Lally Katz’s plays. However, Minnie & Liraz marks the first production where all three creative powerhouses have joined forces.
Mel describes Lally’s new play – which centres around a bridge championship in a Caulfield retirement village – as a dark, romantic comedy. ‘It’s charming and relatable,’ she says.
Designing a set to accommodate the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio, with several unique spaces, meant overcoming some restrictions. The absence of a fly tower meant Mel has designed a revolving set, which would allow each space to feel as important as the other.
‘I didn’t want it to feel too much like a nursing home,’ she says. ‘We wanted it to resemble a higher-end independent living facility.’ As for the salmon coloured walls, that was a deliberate choice to make the Autumn Road Retirement Village feel a little luxurious, but also sweetly oppressive, to highlight the fact that the residents really can’t escape each other.’
Mel found inspiration for this design concept through references of luxury retirement villages and other interesting interiors, found on the internet, magazines and photographs. Photos of Lally’s real life grandparents, whose lives at a New Jersey retirement village were the original motivation for Lally to write this play, were amongst the first points of stimulus pinned to the inspiration board. Mel also found the aesthetic of Miami and Tampa Bay motels in Florida in line with her aesthetic vision. She looked at the ‘parent’ storyline in iconic TV sit-com Seinfeld for additional research.
There’s a lot of colour and cheer in Mel’s design concept, and this may play out most strongly in the casts’ array of costumes. There are some particularly special championship team jackets, adorned with flames, as well as some eccentric bathing suits to match Minnie and Liraz’s unique personalities. ‘Liraz has a leopard-print bathing suit and Minnie has a vibrant, floral suit.’
‘Lally’s writing is wonderful in that it’s so real. But I wanted to find ways where I could make the world a little more heightened, and to really play the comedy through some of the design choices,’ Mel says.
Finding costumes for each character involved numerous trips to Savers; Melbourne’s biggest chain of super second-hand stores. However, the championship jackets and bathing suits have been made in-house by MTC’s wardrobe department from scratch.
An aspect of the design process Mel has particularly enjoyed has been ageing the cast with wigs, make-up, clothing styles and accessories. ‘Nancye Hayes, Rhys McConnochie and Sue Jones are all playing characters in their late nineties. They’re all very youthful looking, so it’s been fun to enhance their age.’
Mel spent time exploring the Advance Style Blog – a successful New York City fashion blog that features ‘sartorial, savvy seniors’ – before finalising the elderly character’s looks. ‘We looked at Advance a lot for our costume references…They’re really incredible dressers with a wild sense of style.’
As for Minnie and Liraz’s dress sense, there are several costume details that speak directly to their personalities. ‘It’s a very fun play to work on. It’s got romance, intrigue and humour and quirk. But it’s also very relatable.’
Minnie & Liraz plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 12 May – 24 June. Book now.