I’ve been working as an assistant in Regent University’s costume shop since 2012, and I’ve costumed just about every production at Generic Theater for two years.
Until this year, however, I’d never before worked with a professional theatre company, which was why I was excited when I was hired to work as an overhire stitcher on Virginia Stage Company’s The Wiz, which was produced in tandem with Norfolk State University. Add that gold star sticker to my resume.
^ My resume.
After a conversation with my editor before I started, I was spurred to keep a “journal” of my time working on the show. It’s not coherent or interesting or insightful, though, so I’m not going to type it all out for you to read things like, “3/31 – took me two hours to sew on the epaulets because of all the foam and hot glue—needle punched a hole through my thumb nail.” Rather, it’s going to cue some comparative observations on how my experience with VSC has differed from my experience in educational and community theatre.
At Regent, the first two shows (which go up in October and December) were cast at the start of the fall semester, and the last three shows (in the spring semester) were cast before the fall semester even ends. We’re able to start work on their costumes well in advance, especially since we often have the actors’ measurements on hand from their last show. At Generic, I’ve never started costuming until the casting process is complete.
At VSC, we started on February 20th, working on things that didn’t require definite sizing, like making hats and sewing color block panels onto hoodies in a few standard sizes. We started collecting sizes from the casting pool, but we didn’t start receiving casting decisions until rehearsals started the following week, on the 28th. We didn’t receive some of the final decisions until mid-March. Such a process strictly determines which costumes you can start working on and when. VSC’s Costume Shop Manager/Resident Designer Jeni Schaeffer did a fantastic job of coordinating all the work that needed to happen and at what time it needed to happen, thankfully. I wouldn’t necessarily call this method an obstacle if planning is adequate, but I’m sure it added an extra challenge to the process.
Costume crafts are things like hats and belts and other accessories that don’t necessarily require sewing but still require making. It’s not like I’ve never worked on costume crafts before — I’ve spent my share of long afternoons burning my fingers on hot glue guns while making a pair of raven wings out of trash bags and spare feathers. I just haven’t designed any costume craft-heavy shows at Generic, and at Regent, I’m one of the few people proficient on a sewing machine, so I usually get a pile of such projects saved up for me—especially if it involves ruffles.
^ I’ve been crowned the Ruffle Queen, but with great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility is stitching just about every ruffle that comes out of that darn shop. But I digress.
There were a lot of costume crafts for The Wiz. Hats hats hats, mostly, and wings for the flying monkeys. I spent an entire day just cutting out and bunching up pieces of tissue paper and tulle and plastic table cloth for the Poppies’ headpieces. That might not sound thrilling, but there’s something “yer a wizard, Harry” magical about creating something out of nothing. Plus, the time flies by when I zero in on tasks like that, especially if there’s a podcast or a Philippa Gregory audiobook playing in the background.
Like with costume crafts, I’m no hand stitching n00b, but I normally encounter it as one of two extremes. At Regent, I hardly had do any hand stitching at all — that work is usually given to practicum students who earn credit hours by working in the costume shop, regardless of whether or not they have any sewing experience. They’re usually given basic projects, like sewing buttons and snaps, ironing, or ripping seams — things that the shop employees could do, but why would we when there’s free labor? (Though sometimes we’re reminded, after removing two hook and eye closures that a sophomore took an hour and a half to sew on backwards, that you get what you pay for.)
The other extreme is when I sew stuff for Generic: I usually end up working solo on the costumes, so that also means that I get to do all the hand sewing. Those fat pads are going to take about four hours to hand stitch to that bodysuit? Then order pizza and grab me a beer, because I’m going to be on this couch for a while.
^A whiiiiiile. Maybe grab me several beers.
At VSC, everyone did the hand sewing. And props to Jeni and Meg, who could have easily pushed some of the more tedious things onto those of us contracted for just this show, but instead often worked alongside us on the same projects. Hand basting color block panels onto jackets for the Winkies seemed daunting, but many hands make light work.
Every time I work on a new production, I love having the chance to learn to work with an interesting new material. For example, at Regent I’ve learned how to work with loosely woven monk’s cloth, and at Generic I’ve developed my hand at sewing knits (if you’re not using a serger, the walking foot is key!). It doesn’t happen with every production, but The Wiz was certainly one. The featured material of the show was neoprene. Jeni was inspired by its use in a recent season of Project Runway, making intensely structural clothing. Most people know it best as “that stuff their laptop case is made of.” At its most basic level, it’s foam (usually) sandwiched between two layers of knit; we made our own, using a foam that had a heat-activated adhesive on both sides, allowing us to iron on whatever inner and outer layer we wanted.
The end result reminded me a bit of the foam rubber costumes used in the 1990’s for Duracell’s “The Puttermans” commercials or the music video for “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” by Primus. (I’m assuming our costumes were easier to sew than either of those, though.) “Structural” is an understatement. These garments stand on their own when you set them down. They’re featured throughout the show on the Munchkins and on the wicked witch Evilene’s minions. In particular, they were used to create a sort of illusion with the Munchkins: the oversized pieces stand away from their bodies, making them look smaller without requiring the actors to kneel or become physically shorter.
Wrapping it up
My favorite piece I worked on was actually the Gatekeeper — no neoprene involved, but Jeni entrusted me with reshaping a green suit jacket to mimic the haute couture piece she based his design on, and it was a very rewarding process — especially after topping it off with those epaulets I busted my thumb nail for.
^ And instead of complaining about how no one understands the time and effort it takes to create clothing because everyone buys theirs from China nowadays, I’ll just post a picture of the offending epaulet.
My most favorite part of all, though, was finally seeing the fruits of our labor on the stage (not to mention the very talented cast). Working with a new group of people is always a learning experience, and I expect that will be true no matter how long I’ve been doing this, but I’m glad this opportunity was with such a lovely and skilled team of costumers.