Marilee Marchese sews a costume that she designed for the Mount Desert Island High School Drama Department. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARILEE MARCHESE

MDI High School costume designer retires after 100 shows 

Marilee Marchese’s designs in action in an MDI Drama Department production.

BAR HARBOR — This year’s one-act festival play was the last show that was dressed by longtime Mount Desert Island High School Drama costume designer Marilee Marchese. 

Since she took the role as costume designer in 1995, Marchese has sewn performance attire for 14 show choir performances and 86 plays for the local high school for a total of 100 different shows. 

Marchese, who learned how to sew at a young age, developed an interest in clothing design over the years. In college, she would sometimes design clothes for herself and close friends. 

After she received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts, Marchese landed a job as a librarian’s assistant at MDI High School, where she worked for a couple years in the early 1980s.  

Marchese went on to design outfits for private functions until she was asked to costume members of the Mount Desert Ballet Company in Town Hill in the early 1990s. 

Her first costume-sewing gig for the high school was a 1995 performance of “West Side Story,” directed by former teacher Dan Mills. 

During MDI Drama Director Casey Rush’s first year teaching in 1998, Marchese did not intend to return for another year until he begged her to. “She ended up stepping back in and has since done a remarkable job building and maintaining the costume collection here for the last 20-plus years,” he said.  

When he was directing a play, Rush noted that Marchese was his best critic. “In a nice way, she would often humbly give me the unvarnished truth about the show’s blocking and staging.” 

Whether it was a fall musical, a one-act competition or a spring play, Marchese would do thorough research about the production’s story setting and characters before creating any costume.  

“She was great with time periods and her choices were based on practical reasons,” said Rush.  

Marilee Marchese, who has designed costumes for 100 MDI High School shows, poses in a homemade design.

One show Marchese remembers as particularly labor intensive and repetitive was making several similar gorilla costumes for the high school’s rendition of “Tarzan.” At that time, she had designed something that required cutting hundreds of brown felt strips, a task that required more hands. If she needed mass production of certain ensembles, a grateful Marchese would often have volunteers to help with time consuming tasks.  

“She just always worked with such grace and empathy,” said Rush, who added that Marchese was great with kids. 

Former MDI High School student Darci Smith said that Marchese has the calmest, most-grounded presence and is a natural teacher. “She approaches students with kindness and patience. She rolls her sleeves up and dives in, methodically and systematically,” she said.  

Smith said that Marchese’s practicality is balanced by flexibility, a sense of humor and a real sense of the students she is working with. She allows room for students to assist, provide input, bring forward ideas and undertake self-direction while directing a cohesive production design.  

When Smith was cast as Eva in the high school’s rendition of “Evita” in 1998, she was self-conscious to wear a strapless gown and nervous to speak up because it seemed to her that it was important to recreate that look. Sensing Smith’s unease, Marchese made the dress with a halter top and tailored the shape to Smith. 

Marchese’s last show was the school’s one-act production, “Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” which wrapped up in March. 

Although Marchese is grateful for the time she spent with the high school, she feels now is the right time to hang up her sewing shears.  

“This year, I just think I’m ready to be finished. It’s time for me to move on to some other thing. I told Mr. Rush that because of some health issues that I was having, as well as just feeling that I’d done it long enough,” she said.  

**This story was updated to say that Marchese’s last show designing costumes was for the Mount Desert Island High School Drama’s one-act festival play, “Kafka’s Metamorphosis”. Liz Braley costumed “The Coarse Acting Show”, a spring play that MDI Drama finished last week.

Ninah Rein

Ninah Rein

Writer at Mount Desert Islander
Ninah Rein, an MDI native, covers news and features in the Bar Harbor area. She is glad to be back in Maine after earning a bachelor's degree in San Diego from the University of California.
Ninah Rein

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