Surprise!! All hail Margaret Spence

Margaret at a Shaw Festival costume workshop (2012?)

Margaret at a Shaw Festival costume workshop (2012?)

The much-beloved Margaret Spence was the longtime Wardrobe Mistress of Alumnae Theatre Company, and is a frequent costume designer.  When she announced her retirement at the end of the 2011/12 season, some kind of tribute was definitely called for.  It just took a while to come together, for various reasons.   Finally, a date was decided:  Wednesday, June 26, 2013.  Alumnae’s 2012/13 season was over, and this was the one day when the theatre was not booked with rentals.

Ramona Baillie (who served as MC on the night) spearheaded and co-ordinated a team of people to pull the surprise event together, and invitees were cautioned not to mention it to Margaret.  Razie Brownstone, who unfortunately could not attend on June 26 because she was en route to Newfoundland, helped with wardrobe selection and some invaluable historical context.  After all, we’re talking about 50 years of history, folks!  Tabitha Keast, Razie’s great-niece Bec Brownstone and current Wardrobe Mistress Barbara Blonska pulled costumes for models to wear – more on that later.  Sandy Schneider (who was also out of town on the event date) arranged a catering team of Bev Atkinson, Norma Crawford, Johanna Jaciw, and Carol Libman to provide delicious goodies for the guests.  Bar Manager Jayne Patterson ensured stock and bartenders; Tess Hendaoui and Sara Kohal spent a steamy Sunday afternoon helping to set up the tables and lobby display, cleaning windows and the brass banister, etc., Janis Sivell welcomed guests and handed out the ‘playbill’ on the event night.

Bill Scott, a frequent lighting designer and special effects builder (an ingenious basket/lampshade on a pulley in After Magritte in January 2011, for example), was enlisted to design and construct an award for Margaret.  Placing a Victorian-gowned statuette (acquired by Ramona in the U.S. ) atop a base he carved from wood from Ghana, Bill affixed an engraved brass plaque.  The whole thing was encased in a cylindrical plexiglass case.  The award was dubbed “The Judy” (in costume design lingo, a “judy” is a dressmaker’s form).

Margaret’s daughters Catherine Spence (Theatre Manager and Archivist) and Martha Spence not only researched Margaret’s long list of credits, built the lobby displays and helped select costumes, but also managed to sneak photo albums, etc. out of their parents’ house! Their father Michael Spence (who I’m told has a difficult time keeping secrets from his wife) held onto the secret until the moment Margaret walked through the door, having accompanied Michael when he invented a reason to come to the theatre!

Here’s a little history on this wonderful lady. Margaret studied Art and Archaeology (now Art History) at the University of Toronto. She joined Alumnae Theatre Company (then called University Alumnae Dramatic Club) in the early 1960’s.  At the time, the company was located on Cecil Street in a former synagogue dubbed The Coach House Theatre.

Her daughters Catherine and Martha like to joke that they were raised in theatre – Catherine recalls sorting screws at age 4 or 5 in the hardware cabinet of Cecil Street for her father Michael.  When Alumnae acquired the former firehall at 70 Berkeley Street, Martha remembers accompanying her mother (then Theatre Manager) to the space before the 1971-72 renovations, and not being allowed to climb the “unsafe” tower stairs.

In over 50 years of tireless volunteering with the theatre, Margaret filled various executive positions on the Board, produced shows, assisted with wardrobe, and exercised her creative bent with costume design.

A special favourite is meticulously-researched period costuming – in recent years alone she has dressed the 21-member cast of Pride and Prejudice (2009) in the fashions of 1813 England; 17 actors as for 1905 in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (2007); 1930’s-style for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (2010) and for Noël Coward’s Private Lives (2008), and she brought the 18th century to life in She Stoops To Conquer (2005).

And not only does she consider the period, but Margaret also takes into account the character and the situation.  She’s been known to say, “Oh, no – [character name] wouldn’t wear that!”   Anyone who’s been costumed by Margaret knows that she will let no actor cross the stage with an undone hem, or heaven forbid: the wrong kind of headgear or footwear!  She also insists on proper foundation garments (i.e.: corsets) for ladies, where appropriate, to ensure correct fit of period wear.  Her attention to detail is legendary, and much appreciated.

During the June 26 event, which was attended by members of Alumnae Theatre Company, Margaret’s friends, design colleagues, etc., models wearing her costumes paraded among the guests, stopping at times to perform a few lines from the play they represented.  Tabitha Keast chose dialogue from the plays.

Carol McLennan and Molly Thom, valiantly disregarding the heat in heavy medieval gear, portrayed Patient Griselda and Pope Joan from Alumnae’s 1996 production Top Girls.

Patient Griselda: “The Marquis said it wasn’t an order, I could say no, but if I said yes I must always obey him in everything.”

Pope Joan:  “I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me.”

The 1992 production For The Love Of The Nightingale was represented by Ramona Baillie, Loriel Medynski and Stephanie Williams in Greek-inspired togas and sporting vine-leaf headdresses.  Their dialogue included:  “What are they like? Men?” 

“They fight.” 

“What are they like: naked?” 


(Yes, it got a laugh.)

Jane Carnwath and I represented Pride and Prejudice (2009).  Jane (who had been the director) wore Mary Bennet’s costume and bonnet and I wore my lace-trimmed brown ballgown as Mrs. Hurst.  I delivered the novel’s memorable opening line (actually spoken by Lizzy Bennet in the stage version), and Jane provided Mrs. Bennet’s interruptions:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune –”

Mrs. Bennet:  “His name is Bingley!?”

Lizzy: “– must be in want of a wife…”

 Bec Brownstone wore Hedda’s stylish black dress from Hedda Gabler (2010).  Her line included the snarky: “We’re going to have problems with that maid. Look. Here. She’s left her old hat.”

PJ Hammond portrayed sociopath Cherry, wearing mob cap and beribboned yellow dress (sadly, minus the hula-hoop underpinning!) as the devious maid Despina in the comedy Così (2012).  Her speech exhorted her mistresses to “enjoy yourselves” while their men were away at war.  “Men only want to get into your pants,” she advised.  “Once they’ve had us, they despise us.”

Amid the eating and drinking, Jayne Patterson facilitated an open mic, for guests to tell anecdotes about Margaret.  Molly Thom read a lovely tribute faxed in by a longtime friend, Martha Mann, who could not attend.   PJ described how Margaret knows exactly where to find anything in her domain.  English bobby hats?  Third aisle on the left side, upper shelf.  No, wait: I need French Foreign Legion hats!  No problem – second aisle, right side, third box from the end.  Victorian gowns?  …  (I’m paraphrasing those locations, but you get the drift.)

Martha Spence noted that when she (as a toddler) and her mother (then Theatre Manager) toured the recently-acquired building in 1971, Margaret eyed the former firehall’s cavernous basement and remarked, “Oh, we’ll never fill that up!”  Well, that basement is now jam-packed: it houses a huge wardrobe room, a carpentry workshop, dressing room, props room, the legendary “Shoe Room”, and the boiler room.

 Alumnae Theatre Company President Barbara Larose, who as an actor has been costumed by Margaret, and as a director has worked with her many times as a costume designer, gave a heartfelt speech and presented Margaret with a beautiful bouquet of roses.  Her daughters Catherine and Martha then presented the special award “The Judy”.

Here’s a photo of me (L) and Laura Vincent in Margaret’s delightful faux-opera costumes for Così (April 2012).   Cosi -  Ruth & JulieBy the way, (plug, plug) Laura and fellow Così actor Mike Vitorovich can be seen at the Toronto Fringe (July 4-14) in Jesus Jell-O: The Miraculous Confection, written and directed by yet another Così castmate, Joanne Sarazen

Post-event, Martha reported that although her father had joked that Margaret was probably going to divorce him for keeping the secret so well, her mother “has just been floating around the house” and was so grateful, “amazed and delighted by all that transpired and so touched by all who took the trouble to come out.”   It was, as Martha also said, “a bang-up do”.  Yay, us!    We love you, Margaret.  xxoo



Filed under 2013/14 Season, News

4 responses to “Surprise!! All hail Margaret Spence

  1. Reblogged this on life with more cowbell and commented:
    Margaret Spence, you’re the greatest! It was a delightful evening – and I’m so glad it was kept a surprise.

  2. Maureen Lukie

    When I was Mrs. B. in the aforementioned P&P, Margaret made sure I was in by most beautiful costume ever! And she’s always been supportive when I needed to find something for a production. Imagine a theatre world filled with Margarets (not possible) and what it would be!

  3. Victoria

    I will never forget the stunning costumes for Alumnae’s Summer and Smoke in 2003.

    • Margaret’s private photo albums (spirited out of her house by her daughters!) were on display. Included shots of “Summer & Smoke” and “P&P”. There was also a gorgeous b&w publicity shot from “S&S”, with Jason Gautreau, Karie Richards and Emily Sanford.

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