When they’re onstage, Lela Elam, Betsy Graver, Ethan Henry, Katherine Amadeo and Alex Alvarez aren’t themselves. They become other people, the characters in a play, and what they wear is what South Florida’s top costume designers create or choose for them.
But on Monday evening when actors, directors, designers and others gather at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for the 37th annual Carbonell Awards — or “Theater Prom,” as the region’s top theater award ceremony has been dubbed by the artists it celebrates — these five nominated actors will be expressing the most glamorous versions of their own taste and style, as will the 33 other actors honored with nominations for their work in plays and musicals during 2012.
Elam, who won a best actress Carbonell for her performance in GableStage’s In the Continuum, is nominated for two more this year. In the Zoetic Stage world premiere of Michael McKeever’s Moscow, Elam wore a maid’s uniform (and earned a best supporting actress nod) as Olivia, a woman working for an affluent family in early ‘60s Miami. In Ruined at GableStage, she wore colorful African dresses (and got a best actress nomination) as Mama Nadi, the operator of a brothel in war-torn Congo.
But offstage? The fashion-conscious actress is all about rocking different looks and creating an impression.
“Honestly? I want everybody to look at me and be like, ‘Oh my God, girl, you look so good!,’ ” she says, laughing. “We work really hard and don’t make a lot of money. So at the Carbonells, I like to work it. It’s our prom.”
Elam currently favors green or blue nail polish, sparkly to match her personality. When she wakes up in the morning, she thinks about what kind of look will work for her day and her mood — hip-hop, professional lady, glamor girl — and puts it all together. It is, she says, “like you’re the costumer of your life.”
The princess-like white Jessica McClintock gown she wore to the 2008 Carbonells was a last-minute substitution. She had bought a corset-top, crystal-beaded black gown, but when she tried it on two days before the ceremony, she discovered it didn’t fit. More worrisome, her hand and foot were badly swollen. When she saw a doctor the day after the ceremony, he guessed she had lupus, and tests soon confirmed the diagnosis. Elam has been managing and living with the autoimmune disorder ever since. But on that special night, wearing the gown and wider shoes, she felt beautiful.
“I walked out wearing the gown, and my dad just gasped. He didn’t even do that for my real prom,” she says.
Graver and Amadeo are both competing with Elam (and with Harriet Oser and Laura Turnbull) for best actress in a play. Graver is nominated for playing Vanda, an auditioning actress, in David Ives’ erotically charged Venus in Fur at GableStage. Amadeo got her nomination for playing the frightened young governess in Naked Stage’s gothic thriller The Turn of the Screw at Barry University’s Pelican Theatre. Coincidentally (or maybe not), both actresses did their two-character shows opposite Matthew William Chizever, nominated as best actor in a musical for playing Henry Higgins in Stage Door Theatre’s My Fair Lady.
In Venus in Fur, Graver wore a black corset, thigh-high boots and a sheer white lace dress created for her by costume designer Ellis Tillman, who’s nominated this year for his Ruined designs. Offstage, the 29-year-old performer’s passion is vintage clothing, particularly things made in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
“I love the way vintage clothes make me feel feminine,” says Graver, who visits thrift and vintage shops all over South Florida to score her finds. “I love thinking that there was a woman who loved this dress and bought it, and now I get to wear it.”
Graver appreciates the quality of fabrics, leather and workmanship in vintage clothing. She looks up labels online to figure out approximately when a purse or hat or dress was made. Her Carbonell choice this year is a modern dress under a vibrantly colored ‘60s coat by Jane Justin for Don Sophisticates.
Amadeo will also be having a rare dress-up night on Monday, wearing a daring black BCBG Max Azria gown and black patent-leather Jimmy Choo platform shoes with five-inch heels. She often goes with BCBG, she says, because she doesn’t particularly like shopping “and I know their clothes fit me.”
Her usual attire is dictated by life with her daughter Lara and another Max, her 1-year-old son. Her daily outfits are far more comfortable and practical: flats or boots or sneakers, leggings and loose clothing. While she was performing Turn of the Screw, she says, she’d nurse her baby backstage just before show time, then don her buttoned-up Victorian gown. She’s happy that her performance, despite her sleep-deprived state and the tiny venue, was remembered by nominators. And she’s looking forward to a glam night out with her husband, actor Antonio Amadeo.
Like Elam, Alvarez is a double nominee this year, though unfortunately he’s competing against himself (and with Matthew Korinko, Kevin Reilley and Robert Strain) for best supporting actor in a play. The Cuban-American actor’s nominated performances were vastly different: In GableStage’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, he was a flamboyant and funny Latino guy, and in Promethean Theatre’s mysterious The Unseen, he was a horrifying prison guard.
Offstage, Alvarez goes with casual and comfortable. But for the Carbonells this year, his first time as a nominee, he bought a chic Calvin Klein tuxedo.
“When I dress up,” he says, “I like classic looks: black, white and a combination of the two.”
Henry, nominated for his M Ensemble performance in the title role of August Wilson’s King Hedley II, is a Chicago actor who has worked steadily in South Florida since moving here with his actress-wife Makeba Pace. Henry has appeared in The Motherf**ker With the Hat and Race at GableStage, and he won raves for his performances in King Hedley and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ A Raisin in the Sun.
The actor went to parochial schools in Chicago and had to wear a tie every day, and though he opted for jeans and T-shirts in college, his usual dress-up look today is a Banana Republic blazer, khakis, shirt and tie. He’s dialing it up a notch for the Carbonells, though, choosing a black pin-striped Mundo Super 120’s suit with a vest, a blue shirt and, likely, a new tie. Why the shirt color?
“My wife likes me in blue,” he says.