Joan Markert wins Lifetime Achievement

Costume designer reflects on her work

Written By Amanda Andrews, Co-News Editor

Photo by Amanda Andrews
Wardrobe and Inventory Supervisor Joan Markert at a work sta- tion in the Playhouse Costume Studio next to the Playhouse cafe.

On Sunday Sept. 13, longtime Point Park costume designer Joan Markert was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF). The gala was hosted at Cefalo’s Banquet and Event Center in Carnegie, Pa. Markert is on her 39th year working at Point Park University and the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 

Markert was notified about receiving the award months in advance. Markert recalled that she was out of town for a college reunion when Conservatory faculty member Linda Haston called her about PWNF’s intentions to honor Markert at their upcoming gala. 

“It was surprising,” Markert said. “I was deeply humbled and grateful and just when you’re honored by people who know what it is, it’s just an extra added point to the honor.” 

The early notification was something Markert was personally grateful for, as the organization asked for her CV, which is essentially an academically geared resume. This provided her with a challenge as she had not written up a CV in 15 years. 

“And I took the opportunity to kind of go back over all the time I’ve been here and try to put together as much as I could. The CV is about maybe two and a half pages, the list of the shows is about seven. So I’ve done a few things,” Markert said. 

The gala offered hors d’oeuvres and drinks “and a good time was had by all,” according to Markert. 

“It was very similar to any awards show you see on television. There were best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best lead actor, best lead actress, best play, best director…and then the Lifetime Achievement Award, which actually came before the leading actress and the best play. It was an interesting juxtaposition as in how they did it,” Markert said. “And I got a chance to see some people I haven’t seen in a number of years because they were part of that group and are perhaps no longer doing things on a more regular basis.” 

Markert initially fell in love with theater as a little girl when she saw a production of My Fair Lady with her mother in Chicago. While she was originally obstinate to seeing the musical, she said that she became so enthralled that she didn’t want to leave by the end. 

As for her interest in costume design, many members of her family were seamstresses. Her exposure to their craft as she grew up greatly inspired her career path. 

“I got into this because I loved sewing. I [was] a tolerable artist. I can draw a picture of a costume and make the costume look pretty much like the picture unless I change my mind halfway through,” Markert said.

Her creative process is particularly intensive. She reads the play being performed, rereads the play and examines how the setting, plot and character status as well as relationships will impact how people are dressed. Markert then draws inspiration from resource books and pictures and discusses the planned aesthetic of the play with the director. Sometimes a director’s desired vision or the student casting process can create difficulties in her work but none that she hasn’t already managed and worked with. 

Over the years she has worked at the university, Markert has said that the biggest change in her work has been where the department finds the source of the materials. 

“It’s developed with the introduction of the internet, which is a little strange. But, prior to that, almost any period costume we wanted to put into a show, we had to build,” Markert said. “With the internet, we have discovered places that make very nice period’s men’s wear…places that will rent at tolerably reasonable prices, but they’re clear across the country. We’ve found places that will make things to order.” 

Markert earned her undergraduate degree in Speech and Theatre at Grinnell College and her masters in Costume Design at Carnegie Mellon University. After studying and living in Pittsburgh for the first time, Markert moved out to Los Angeles to work on the critically acclaimed Norman Lear shows such as “All in the Family” and “One Day at a Time.”  

After finding LA to be “too big,” Markert moved back to Pittsburgh to find local work. On a fateful night at a reception, Markert innocently dropped off a resume that would lead to her longest costume designing gig at Point Park. 

In regards to her biggest impact, Markert appreciated that her expertise on costume design for Point Park and local theater companies has assisted in a variety of productions for decades. 

“And it’s just having the knowledge that I have over the number of years that I’ve worked that I think helps people,” Markert said. “And I hope it does.”