Costume makers stitch a show together

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • March 30, 2016

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Madison Gordon perches on a stool with the sleeves of her Kelly green blazer rolled up.  She’s intently focusing on adjusting the hem of a dress, carefully plucking strings with a small, sharp silver device called a seam-ripper.

“This is for Guys and Dolls,” Gordon said, smoothing the yellow fabric of the 40s-style dress. “I’m a huge fashion history nerd.”

Gordon, a senior performing arts major, is a shop assistant in the Emerson College Costume Shop. Tucked away on the second floor of the Tufte Performance and Production Center, it produces nearly every outfit for Emerson Stage shows, and it’s staffed by four professionals and 25 paid students.

For the spring productions of Guys and Dolls, the shop designed, cut, and crafted roughly 200 costumes, according to Richelle Devereaux Murray, supervisor and professor of the performing arts department’s stagecraft course.

“There’s no typical day here,” Devereaux Murray said, while snipping a label off of a pair of pink scrubs. “We just find creative ways to juggle it all.”

Devereaux Murray, ‘00, returned to Emerson in 2003 to oversee the design, constructions, procurement, and alterations for costumes in the shop, she said. She filled the shoes of Debra Krasa, now the business manager, who’s fondly called the “money honey,” as she handles the shop’s finances and scheduling.

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Krasa said. “But everyone fills a role here.”

Racks of fur coats, sequined dresses, and stately suit jackets line the walls. It smells like coffee. Tibetan prayer flags hang in the windows, and the hum of a sewing machine politely whirs in the backdrop of the shop. It’s a likely dream for anyone who loves to play dress up, but don’t let its fantastical dressings fool you—this emporium is a methodized and organized workroom that churns out hundreds of costumes each season.

It’s equipped with three cutting tables, eight domestic and four industrial sewing machines, an industrial leather machine, two sergers, and an ironing station. There’s a fitting room at the back, a stock room, and the craft room, reserved for dyeing fabrics, leather work, and various embellishing techniques. It boasts more than 10,000 costume pieces, according to the shop’s page on the Emerson website. And often, students are the creators of the designs, Devereaux Murray said.

“Students bring a lot of new ideas,” Devereaux Murray said. “I like when we get to see the students’ sketches—their creations on stage. And you see the colors and the set and it all comes to life.”

Jez Insalaco is one of these students. The senior performing arts major was hired her sophomore year to be a stitcher—she was assigned simple tasks like mending tears, sewing on buttons, or hemming pants. Over the past two years, she’s worked her way up to be a “first hand,” and she’s responsible for following patterns and sewing larger projects.

Insalaco is working on a Havana-styled costume right now, she said, and it’s her first time generating an entire ensemble for a character. The frock Insalaco’s making is for a dance number in Guys and Dolls. It’s a hi-lo skirt, with a big tail and ruffles of blue and green wrapping around the actor’s body.

“It’s great to work one-on-one with an expert in the field and to have the space and time to create something,” Insalaco said. “To watch things go from 2D sketches to costumes is really cool and rewarding.”

There’s typically 10–20 people working every day in the shop, scheduled on the floor and in the craft room, and students usually work eight to 10 hours a week, Insalaco said.

Costume construction requires endurance, patience, resilience, and, perhaps most of all, collaboration, the professional guest designer for Guys and Dolls, Molly Trainer, said.

“Theatre is truly a collaborative art,” Trainer said. “It’s all intertwined.”

Quite literally, their work is synergetic—collectively, the shop workers sew together a show. This required teamwork makes for a highly supportive environment, Gordon said.

“The environment is really great,” Gordon said. “It’s just a really positive workplace.”

Another essential part of this operation is the stockroom, run by Marty Miller. The junior communication studies major manages the inventory and structure of the space. The shop occasionally donates suitable garments to the nearby shelter St. Francis House, and they host a sale for students every other October—it’s an ideal place to pluck up Halloween costumes, Miller said, gesturing to the shelves behind him—three tiers high, and brimming with vaudeville thrills ranging from a gold-jewelled crown to a blue velvet sombrero.

“I love working here,” Miller said. “It’s a comforting, calm environment, but when things get crazy, people know what to do.”

With the sheer mass of garments that dance through the shop, onto the stage, and onto the racks, Devereaux Murray said she tries to recycle and repurpose costumes by reworking pieces for different roles in new shows—otherwise, the stockroom fills up.

“It’s like making a beautiful cake and eating it—we try not to get too attached,” Devereaux Murray said.

The largest production the shop worked on was Richard III, which ran earlier this semester. The play spanned six time periods of fashions, boasted a cast of 44, and required nearly 500 costumes. This season, Guys and Dolls is proving to be a mammoth production, too, and this week, the crew is putting the finishing touches on its creations.

Insalaco’s final fitting for the costume she conceived is on Friday. She’s been working on the Havana outfit for over a month, and she’s put in nearly 60 hours, she said.

“It’s so nice to see that your work helps the actor become the character,” Insalaco said. “It’s awesome to see your piece of art on stage underneath the lights in its full glory.”