The Magic of Carol Ann Pelletier

Theatre Faculty, 1993-2015

Written by Shannon Mullen, Photo by Quyen Nguyen

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In an age of digital gadgetry, it’s remarkable how much Carol Ann Pelletier managed to accomplish in her life with just a needle and thread.

For 22 years, Pelletier was the theatre program’s fairy godmother-in-residence, wielding her magical powers to conjure costumes of extraordinary quality and creativity for hundreds of Sarah Lawrence productions.

The results were all the more amazing given the limited resources she had to work with. “Our entire budget for a show,” she once said, “is basically one Armani suit.”

To be fair, Pelletier did have a pair of rather fine sewing machines at her disposal. Funny story about those machines: Longtime faculty Kevin Confoy (theatre), who collaborated with Pelletier on upwards of 200 shows, used to hold lunchtime production meetings with her and with Shirley Kaplan, then the director of the theatre program, at the now-defunct Japan Inn in Bronxville.

Because Pelletier spoke fluent Japanese, having spent four years doing human rights work in Nippon in her younger days, the staff there treated her like an empress.

At one such sushi-and-sake feast, Confoy had to excuse himself early to return to campus. Before he left, Pelletier inquired if it might be possible to get a Juki for the costume shop. “Sure, Carol,” said Confoy, assuming she was referring to a type of Japanese dessert. “But do you think one Juki is enough?” Something about the look in Pelletier’s eyes just then gave him pause. Weeks later, he understood why, when the bill for two high-end, industrial-grade Juki sewing machines landed on his desk.

Students loved her pluck and passion, and treasured the professional guidance and support she generously lent them long after they graduated.

A lifelong bookworm from a large, working-class family, Pelletier studied at Brandeis and found her niche in costume design, which combined her abiding love of history and world culture with her considerable skills as a seamstress.

Kaplan first met Pelletier in the early 1990s at a New York repertory theatre that was staging English translations of French plays. Impressed by her grasp of the historical context of the works, Kaplan offered her a job running the College’s costume shop.

It was, as they say in the trade, a perfect fit. Students loved her pluck and passion, and treasured the professional guidance and support she generously lent them long after they graduated. To the faculty and staff, Pelletier was nothing short of a marvel. “She always thought anything was possible,” Kaplan recalls.

Confoy tells the story of one particularly ambitious student director whose vision for Romeo & Juliet called for a spaceship to land in the middle of Suzanne Werner Wright Theatre. She wanted the Montagues outfitted in alien costumes while the Capulets were to don mid-14th-century Renaissance garb. Confoy was dubious. Pelletier, without batting an eye, suggested that perhaps mid-16th-century costumes might better represent the Italian wars.

“It was pure Carol,” Confoy recalls.

Such consummate educators are hard to find. Losing one like Pelletier, who died in August 2015, is even harder.

“Carol had about her this astounding placid quality and a patience that encouraged her students to their full expression,” Confoy says. “We all learned from her."