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Costume designer Kara Harmon goes from TV to the Guthrie's 'Guys and Dolls'

Marita Meinerts Albinson

Marita Meinerts Albinson

Costume designers have to think about how clothes are going to look when actors put them on, but for the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Guys and Dolls, designer Kara Harmon had a reverse challenge of sorts as well. “We have striptease scenes in the Hot Box [nightclub],” explains Harmon. “So that’s something that we’ve designed, as a team, in a certain way: how the pieces are going to come off.”

The NYC-based designer is in the Guthrie’s costume shop, clutching a thick binder of fabric swatches and looking at a wall lined floor-to-ceiling with copies of costume sketches. “For ‘Take Back Your Mink,’” she continues, indicating the Hot Box costumes, “the dresses come off. The gloves, the mink, the hat.”

To ensure complex costumes work and look correct, they can’t just be bought: They have to be constructed. “I think the number is roughly at 38 full builds,” counts Harmon, estimating that when stock pieces and other outfits are included, the total number of costumes in the show comes to 124.

To that end, as Harmon speaks a dozen people are sewing and pinning intently. Harmon is watchful but confident, a veteran who knows how to pull a massive show together over months of planning.

“It takes a lot of discipline,” says Harmon about life as a freelance designer who works on as many as 10 shows a year. “I travel with a drawing board.” Last year, she was on the road for 270 days.

You might have seen Harmon’s work on TV. Her credits include contributions to Daredevil and Boardwalk Empire. On The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Harmon combined her stage and TV skills when she designed costumes for a theater production staged at a summer camp in the ’50s. “It’s very campy!” laughs Harmon.

For Guys and Dolls, Harmon has designed eye-popping, colorful costumes that nod to the play’s gangland setting—complete with a yellow trench coat and matching hat, a nod to Dick Tracy—while visually suggesting that women are “leading the story,” as Harmon puts it.

By way of example, Harmon explains that the character Adelaide, a nightclub entertainer, “could certainly be dressed in a non-tasteful way. For me, she’s actually very put-together from head to toe and is not wearing tacky clothes in this production, so that we can visualize her reaching higher for her dreams.”

When a show opens, Harmon usually sits in the audience, and enjoys hearing the crowd’s reactions.

She also loves “seeing the actors see each other” in their costumes for the first time. “Last week we did a fitting with all the Hot Box dancers together,” she says. “It’s just really nice, because everyone gets excited. It’s kind of like a big reveal.”

Guys and Dolls
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through August 25