“I don’t do plaid jackets and rubber boots.” Words from Marie Sharpe on her life-long approach to costume design for Newfoundland theatre, television and film. Marie’s approach reflects her perception of the variety of Newfoundland culture and how that culture should be portrayed, beyond the clichés and stereotypes. In other words, an approach that should reflect the characters to help the director and author tell the story. As Marie said to me about her philosophy, she disregards what she personally likes or dislikes, and, while she doesn’t completely disregard the likes or dislikes of actors, she works to help them transform themselves in a collaborative approach. “Clothing,” she says, “is a big part of that transformation. It is about the character in the play/film. Who are they? Their history? Their socioeconomic status? Where would they shop? What can they afford?” 

Marie’s career in costume design started with sewing and, undoubtedly, Marie’s love of sewing can be traced back to her Goodview Street birthplace and her admiration of maternal grandmother Martha. Though her grandmother died when Marie was only 3 or 4 years old, Marie heard countless stories from her own mother, Mary, who was good at repair and mending but said Martha “was a brilliant seamstress.” Of course, Great Depression-era necessity drove Martha’s sewing, like taking her husband’s winter coat, pulling it apart, and piecing it back together as two coats for her children. These stories of her grandmother deeply resonated. In high school Marie signed up for a sewing course and, for her, “the whole process was natural. I took to it like duck to water.” One winter’s day a sewing machine from Sears showed up. Marie doesn’t remember the circumstances, if it was meant as a graduation present like her brother Bill receiving his drum set for graduating high school. What ever the circumstances, that Sears’ sewing machine launched her artistic life as the drums had for Bill.

Marie and her mom, Mary

If Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) had a fine arts program in the early ’70s it would have been Marie’s choice, hands down. As it was, she ended up studying sociology but continued with the sewing, earning a few bucks by making clothes to sell at the Student Centre. A friend who was working at the Arts and Cultural Centre (ACC) asked Marie if she would like to join her and help sew for the annual Fall Musical — that year, The Music Man starring Gordon Pinsent. Pretty much, folks, that was that. As Marie told me: “The day I went in I was totally at home.” The staff at ACC must have recognized the same thing as they asked her to stay for an upcoming Christmas show which led, upon her graduation in 1974, to a permanent part-time position for ten years (though working full time hours, and beyond). Marie’s original title was Wardrobe Mistress, which meant she was solely responsible for the Costume Department and designing all costumes — some time in the early ’80s they changed her title to Costume Designer. 

Regardless of title, Marie officially held the position until “retirement” in 2011. (I put “retirement” in quotes because Marie’s been involved in a bevy of theatre and film since then.) It is not an overstatement to say Marie’s role had a profound affect on arts and culture in Newfoundland. Both her brother Bill and sister Joan alerted me to the fact that Marie had been bestowed the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Service Award of Excellence in 2004. She never once mentioned this award to me and when I raised it with Marie she, with typical self-effacement, waved it aside with a breath-releasing, phttt. With all due respect to my cousin’s modesty, I will quote from the government’s public release when they announced her award:

“Marie Sharpe is Costume Designer and Wardrobe Mistress, Arts and Culture Centres, Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation. She demonstrates exceptional performance as it relates to leadership, valuing people, innovation and service delivery. 

“During her years in this position Marie has grown the costume bank into a province-wide cultural resource. Today, it is the envy of many similar public and private endeavours in Canada. The costume bank started as a modest sewing and wardrobe room in the mid 1970s and under Marie’s leadership and vision, it now holds over 20,000 costumes, accessories and irreplaceable vintage items.

“Marie’s approach to her work is innovative and creative. Many cultural works that have brought us national attention have been clothed in garments created by Marie. She goes beyond the call in her interactions with the performing arts community, assisting them in their struggles and doing her utmost to make them feel comfortable.”

That’s some phttt isn’t it. On top of that, in 2010, she won the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Award for Artists’ Achievement. According to their website: “the Artist’s Achievement Award is given annually to a practicing artist who has made an outstanding contribution to the cultural life of Newfoundland and Labrador over a number of years” (their emphasis).

Marie, the professional headshot

At the heart of her turning that humble sewing and wardrobe room to the irreplaceable costume bank it became is that deep-seated work ethic her Goodview Street parents instilled within all of their children. For Marie, that industriousness, combined with education, helped her develop her philosophy to costume design. Although sociology may not seem related, it provided a solid grounding in understanding how society works and how to do proper research. According to Marie, “This held me in good stead when I was figuring out how to build a show. I was the first person at the ACC, or in Newfoundland, who was going to be the costumer full time. The job evolved around me. I spent many many long hours in libraries researching different periods of clothing. I had no problem at all doing this. I read and read and read until I figured it all out. There was no one before me, I had no one to ask. My degree gave me the confidence and the know how to learn what I needed to learn. No internet back then.”

Marie’s work ethic also led to great amounts of  “overtime” which she was permitted to use to take “time in lieu”. That arrangement allowed her to accept when the CBC came calling with an offer to work on a program called Tales of Pigeon Inlet. Ted Russell, who had died in 1977, was a former politician who once served in Joey Smallwood’s cabinet. After leaving politics he became well-known in the 1950s for the stories he wrote and narrated on radio as “Uncle Mose” about life in a fictional outport he called Pigeon Inlet. CBC TV adapted some of those stories into half-hour shows in the ’80s. From there, Marie became a stalwart of Newfoundland theatrical, television and film production. Over the next thirty years she was involved in a wide ranging number of films including Divine Ryans in 1998 and Maudie in 2015, television documentaries such as Ocean Ranger and Newfoundland @ Armageddon, television specials — Buddy Wassisname & the Other Fellas — the St. John’s audition for Canadian Idol in 2004 — and even that Canadian classic Heritage Moment: the one Marie worked on was about Marconi.

The production Marie was involved in that most Canadians probably recognize was The Republic of Doyle, the good natured weekly television series about private detective Doyle that showcased St. John’s and the surrounding area of bays and coves. I admit to being a bit ambivalent about Doyle. Every week that it aired those first couple of years I was immensely proud to see my cousin’s name, Marie Sharpe, roll across the screen. However, in the late summer of 2008 when filming had begun I went to St. John’s to attend an industry conference and my son, Mike, tagged along. After the conference I took a few personal vacation days and took Mike to visit family and places of personal Seaward importance (Goodview Street and Gooseberry Cove at the top of the list). I’d been looking forward to seeing Marie but, alas, she messaged me that she was in Montreal trying to find the perfect jacket that would help define Doyle. No doubt the black leather jacket that Doyle wore was as distinctive as his character but it cost me a chance to see Marie. Every time Doyle bounded around St. John’s in his beautiful black leather jacket I cursed a little beneath my breath.

Marie and CBC reporter Wanita Bates who was interviewing Marie about the great assortment of hats she’d collected for the Arts And Cultural Centre

Seeing Marie’s name “in lights” is way more important to me then it ever has been for her; quite honestly, it is the work and the people she works with that have motivated Marie to drive herself as hard as she does to make the production the best it can be. One of the early people that enthralled Marie was singer Joan Morrissey, a Newfoundland icon in the ’60s and ’70s. Marie worked on the musical Gypsy at the ACC, which starred Morrissey, sometime in the mid-70s. Marie told me that “Joan had the first gold-selling record in Newfoundland and was often at the ACC, performing in concerts, a lot of them charity concerts, she always stepped up.” Unfortunately, Joan Morrissey suffered severe depression after heart surgery and eventually took her own life.

Perhaps the most constant performer over Marie’s career has been Mary Walsh. Anyone reading this who recognizes Mary Walsh probably fell in love with her when she emerged on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. For Marie, however, Mary is a girl from the neighbourhood. In Marie’s words, “Mary started life on the bottom of Carters Hill. Just below the steps across the street from Uncle Gerald’s store. She went to a different Catholic School than me. But knowing that we came from the same neighbourhood always made me one of Mary’s nearest and dearest. For me, working with Mary has always been a great joy and I have worked on many many projects with her over the years. I have rarely turned Mary down when she calls me to work with her.”

The shows Marie has worked on include Dancing with Rage, Mary Walsh’s first one woman show. Again, in Marie’s words, “although it was the life of Marg Delahunty, Princess Warrior, it was loosely based on Mary’s life. Much of it was purely fictional, but you could always imagine that these sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking situations could be Mary Walsh’s Truth. It was a complicated show to do because she never left the stage. All of the costume changes took place onstage in front of the audience, starting out in a child’s bathrobe, ending in the Marg Princess Warrior. I cannot count the number of times that I have had to rebuild that costume over the years.” 

Another standout for Marie is her involvement with the theatrical company Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, founded in the mid-90s. Her first work with them was in 1998 on their production of Jesus Christ Superstar. In the last few years, Marie’s costumes that started in St. John’s with essential Newfoundland stories, like Oil and Water and Colony of Unrequited Dreams, have been seen across Canada when those shows travelled west. Grand Theatre, in my hometown London, staged both those plays and while I missed Colony, I was thrilled to sit with other family members to see the unique and beautiful true story of Lanier Phillips, an African American shipwrecked off the coast of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, in 1942. If you don’t know the play you should check out Oil and Water as well as Colony.

Marie and Paul, Petty Harbour

Of Goodview Street: family and hard work. As Marie told me, “more than anything else in the world I love that I grew up on Goodview Street and I love that I had the strong, supportive, loving family that I had.” That Goodview Street family extended when she started dating Paul Noseworthy while she was finishing high school at Holy Heart and he was in first year at MUN. Paul became her life partner and together they had two daughters, Victoria (1983) and Rebecca (1986). Marie’s ability to accomplish all that she has, and raise two daughters, is a testament to marriage truly as partnership. If Marie were to be writing this Profile as autobiography she would write 10 words about herself and the remaining 2,300 words about Paul. That truth should not be taken only as her self-effacement; frankly, it speaks to the man, husband and father that is Paul Noseworthy.

Marie’s artistic life came full circle in 2019 when she designed costumes for a short film about Joan Morrissey’s life, Surrounded by Water, a title that came from one of her most famous songs. The Canadian Alliance of Film and Television Costume Arts and Design nominated Marie for Costume Design in Short Film. Although she didn’t win, Marie attended the awards in March and said “it was a lovely weekend of events and I got to know some great people. At dinner I sat with the lady who designed the Handmaids Tale.” The other thing she told me when I asked about the awards was that she “never intended to go but I got guilted into it at the last minute.” There you have Marie, if you want a summation: the people who love and respect her have to guilt her in to an award ceremony meant to celebrate her and her work in the industry she loves. Not the limelight for Marie — rather like that phttt she gave me when I asked about her Public Service award. I don’t know, maybe we can rephrase an old saying to fit Marie: you can take the girl out of Goodview Street but you can’t take Goodview Street out of the girl.

To honour Marie for Marie, I’ll leave off there, ending with words about who she loves rather than who she is.

The last of the five Sharpe siblings comes next, Joan, the child in the middle, with Bill and Marie older, Doug and Bob younger. An educator with the soul of an artist, I think Joan is also the true embodiment of Mary Sharpe, her mother.

I hope you come back. 

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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