Sewing face masks from muslin cloth and leftover fabric scraps is not how Costume Shop Manager Julie McMurry anticipated spending her final semester at Bowdoin.
“You know, there’s a limit to how many one person can make, but every little bit helps,” McMurry said in a video interview with the Orient. “The College has been very generous, keeping everyone employed. And so as a result of that, I’m trying to use the time in a good way so that it feels responsible and helpful.”
During any other semester, McMurry would have been busy coordinating costume fittings and making alterations for the 81 dancers set to perform in the Spring Dance Concert. Instead, she now spends afternoons in the quiet costume shop at Bowdoin, sewing masks and organizing shoes and fabric as she prepares for her planned retirement this spring.
After 15 years of mending and altering costumes in time for theater tech deadlines, and afternoons spent sewing to the WCLZ Acoustic Coffee Break, McMurry will officially say goodbye to Bowdoin’s costume shop on May 29.
“I’ve had a number of different careers, but this one is my favorite,” said McMurry. “Every semester is different and new. It’s all creative and there’s some crazy stress, but then it goes away … Bowdoin is an amazing place. The theater department especially is a great place to be.”
A lifelong Mainer, McMurry has worked as a professional costumer for 22 years. She previously worked as a registered nurse and served as the marketing and sales executive at an educational toy company for 16 years, before settling into costume design at the Portland Stage.
It was there that she was discovered by the Bowdoin theater tech team, who, according to Technical Director Deborah Puhl, quickly schemed to hire McMurry for their own staff.
“It was like one of those serendipitous things that we needed a new costumer and Julie was there and open to the idea of working for us. I mean, that hardly ever happens,” Puhl said in a video interview with the Orient. “And I’m not gonna say that Portland Stage didn’t hate us a little, but oh well … I mean, we were just a much better fit. Can we help it?”
McMurry has served as both costume shop manager and costume designer at Bowdoin, crafting costumes for two productions each semester—a dance concert and the mainstage theater production. She meets with theater and dance faculty at the start of each semester as they establish a vision for the show and designs a slate of costumes to help bring the vision to life.
“I always feel she’s trying to become clear about what it is you want to do as a visionary, as a creator, and supporting that the best way she knows how using the resources that she has,” said Assistant Professor of Dance Adanna Kai Jones in a video interview with the Orient. “There’s something about the costumes that bring life to the dance itself, I really appreciate it.”
McMurry’s work also extends far beyond simply the costumes. A warm and friendly presence in the theater, she has also helped dancers to work through their stage fright, given advice to student directors and designers and, perhaps most importantly, served as an example of how to find joy and meaning in one’s work.
“She’s an amazing role model … I want to grow up to be just like Julie McMurry,” Puhl said. “Julie is one of those people that reminds you that you can have a job that you really, really like. And I think that is important especially at a liberal arts college.”
McMurry herself cites students as her favorite part of working at the costume shop, something that is not found at other professional theaters.
“I just love the creativity and the openness that students have,” McMurry said. “And to watch [them] go from freshmen to graduating, and then come back and visit—it’s been really fun.”
Student employees at the costume shop also expressed their admiration for McMurry and the invaluable advice she has given many, not just about costumes, but also about life.
“She’s the only person at Bowdoin that I’ve almost called ‘mom’ several times,” said Isabella Angel ’22 in a video interview with the Orient. “She’s just such a supportive and open person. She is constantly there for you and totally unafraid to let you know that she is there for you … I wish I could be more like Julie.”
“There’s so many practical skills I’ve learned from her—I can mend my own clothes, I can make a pair of pants; that’s one of the most concrete things I can look back at my college experience and say, I didn’t know how to do this before, I know how to do it now,” said Joe Hilleary ’20 in a video interview with the Orient. “And I just really enjoyed getting to know her as a friend and [as] someone I look up to and love to learn from and learn about.”
As for her plans after Bowdoin, McMurry looks forward to moving to Florida and spending her retirement with her husband, children and grandchildren. However, she also hopes to stay connected with Bowdoin.
“I’m sure I’ll be back,” McMurry said. “Whenever there’s something fun happening, I’ll try to make an appearance.”
While McMurry’s presence will be dearly missed, students and colleagues praise the contributions she has made during her tenure, leaving her mark on the department as an inspiration and a guiding force.
“A lot of times, especially as people go on [later] in their careers, they tend to get a little slack, they tend to say well, good enough,” Puhl said. “Julie McMurry has never said good enough. She has kept the bar high.”