Broadway designer helps theatre students embrace the power of what Cornelia Connelly called “The Holy Child Theatre”

On the eve of Cornelia Connelly’s Jan. 15 birthday, the students in Maryanne Householder’s freshman theatre class are in for a surprise—an unannounced guest speaker is in their midst. As the girls huddle, cross-legged, in a circle on the stage of Pike Auditorium, accomplished Broadway costume designer Michael Krass joins them for a candid conversation about his craft and his career.
I love having a guest speaker for the girls,” Ms. Householder explains.“Theatre is such a dynamic art form and I think it's important for the girls to see different creators and how they use their craft.” The skills and talents Mr. Krass brings to the classroom are impressive, and very much in line with Cornelia Connelly’s vision of the foundational role of the arts in a Holy Child education. 

In particular, Cornelia insisted theatre had a “special value in education,” despite encountering pointed opposition from 19th-century Catholic parents, who considered the theatrical arts a dubious “form of amusement.” According to one biography of Cornelia, “She thought children imbibed noble sentiments from taking the parts of noble characters, and incidentally learned many useful arts from making the dresses and scenery.” 

Mr. Krass’ costume design for “Hadestown” was nominated for a Tony award, and that show went on to win the best musical of 2019. His current show, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” had an explosive run in New York, and is about to have its L.A. premiere at the Mark Taper Forum downtown. But the artistic toolkit Krass describes is simple, and far from exclusionary.

“I'm telling a story with clothing the same way a writer is telling a story with language, the same way an actor is telling a story with their body and their voice,” he says. 

The Class of 2023 listened attentively while Mr. Krass gave them a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his craft. He started by posing a very basic question: “I want to know what you think I do as a costume designer,” he said. “What's the job?”

“Sketch out sometimes?” a girl cautiously offers an answer. 

“Sometimes, yes.” he says, “But I don't like to draw and I have four Tony nominations. So it's not that important!”

Another student, her interest piqued, suggests, “Research?”

“Yeah. But what do you Google?” he asks her. 

““Like…” she pauses. “Examples of people you want to model the style after?

“Really smart,” Mr. Krass says, and the girl beams. In addition to being a costume designer in New York for decades, Mr. Krass has also taught at NYU and Brown University. His experience as an educator shows as he effortlessly conducts a lively teacher and student exchange.

There are no rules to this discussion. Mr. Krass allows it to have an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) kind of format, and over the course of the visit, some of the girls become braver in speaking up. 

A formerly silent student wants to know: “Where did you learn to sew?” 

“I don’t sew!” Mr. Krass guffaws, and many students laugh alongside him. “I can’t really draw. I don’t make the costumes. I hire people...I am the idea guy.”

Mr. Krass goes on to praise the costume shops, drapers, and tailors he has worked closely with over the years, explaining that these professional collaborations made his career path possible. 

Reflecting on Mr. Krass’ visit later, Ms. Householder says, “Michael's path shocked the girls because it wasn't a stereotypical or traditional answer...The constant driving force was that he worked hard, loved what he did, and never gave up.”

The story that Mr. Krass was telling was all too relatable, acknowledging his strengths, while admitting his weaknesses. Suddenly a room full of teenage girls became aware that embarking on a life in the arts didn’t necessarily begin with comprehensive expertise. Mr. Krass insisted the only essential element for that kind of life was already abundant in every person in the room: “Curiosity.”

If Mr. Krass’ approach to art-making were to be boiled down to its most basic elements, it would be about the way we encounter and engage with what is around us. Whether it be a Rothko in MOCA or a fire hydrant on Mission Street, he suggests the girls slow down and take in what is right in front of them. Try to shut out ideas about what they should think, and ignore the taste-makers and influencers shouting for their attention. Just insert moments of pause with an object or experience, and then ask themselves two simple questions: “What do I see?” and “How does it make me feel.”

Mr. Krass ends his visit on that note. “Curiosity is a motor,” he tells the room. “You’ve got a voice inside you that’s got questions and all of those questions are the most interesting and important motor that you have for the rest of your life.”

And little did he know, but Mr. Krass’ guidance, suggesting that students trust what is already inside them, were lessons that could have been lifted straight out of Cornelia Connelly’s playbook (or in her case, “The Order of Studies”). These were the principles she would return to time and again over her lifetime.

Cornelia Connelly’s affection for theatre, and incorporating its lessons in an educational setting, was far ahead of her time. She appreciated the way multiple, distinct artforms came together to create a theatrical production, and understood that a student could learn from every one of those elements. Furthermore, she trusted in theatre as a vehicle of worship. Her biographer wrote about the way Cornelia “thought the plays would not only cultivate taste, but improve the moral courage of the children.” Bravery, creativity, and discipline could all be fostered in young minds in this way. And ultimately, those qualities could always find a higher service too. “The Holy Child Theatre” is what Cornelia Connelly called it because “she considered that every performance was an act of love to Him.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.