A stitch in time: Arena Stage Company’s costume shop, then & now

A stitch in time: Arena Stage Company’s costume shop, then & now – theatre crafts then & now

Davi Napoleon

In 1971, Arena Stage Company founder Zelda Fichandler was the Washington, DC-based theatre’s artistic director. Costume designer Marjorie Slaiman ran the costume shop, budgeting and assigning tasks to the “girls,” all four of them, on her staff. When she spoke to a reporter from Theatre Crafts, she was thrilled about the extra cutting table the shop carpenters had built for her. That brought Slaiman’s cutting table total to two; the second one had wheels, so she could push it against the old one to get twice as much space.

Fast forward to 2002. Those shop people–and the garments they produce–have come a long way, baby. In the shop Celestine Ranney-Howes manages today, everything has changed, from the equipment list to the staff roster. Where once the shop occupied a room, now it fills three. “There’s no space large enough to accommodate the shop as it is,” Ranney-Howes explains, adding that two rooms are for construction while the third is for dyeing, painting, and assembling costume props, such as hats, purses, and jewelry.

Today’s staff includes three drapers, each with a first hand to cut the patterns she creates. A properties person is responsible for hats; a wardrobe staff runs the shows. When she isn’t dealing with budget or making sure equipment is in good condition and supplies are on hand, Ranney-Howes does the shopping, aided by her shop assistant. When a show is large, the shop hires extra stitchers and first hands as needed.

Slaiman shopped most modern shows, sometimes inviting actors to chip in for their garments. “They pay a portion of the cost of a suit or sports outfit,” she explained. “Then, when the show is over, it belongs to them…. we usually get clothes for about two-thirds the regular cost, so it works out well for us and for the performer.”

Ranney-Howes also mostly shops modern shows, and if performers ask to buy a costume after the run, they can. But she wouldn’t dream of asking them for money, and if she did, she’s certain Actor’s Equity Association would stop her. Most costumes wind up in stock until the theatre has a costume sale, open to the public and created less to raise money than to keep the inventory manageable. That’s necessary, even though the theatre now has twice as many costume storage rooms as it had in 1972. One is on the premises, for modern clothing from the 1920s on, the other storage room is in a nearby warehouse for larger items and period pieces.

When Slaiman built garments, she didn’t hesitate to work from commercial patterns if possible. “For a pair of pants, or something like that, we don’t stand on ceremony,” she said. “If it’s a simple pattern, it’s foolish to take a girl’s time–it could take three hours to draft a pattern.” Would Ranney-Howes buy a pattern? Well, it’s true that for the modern comedy, On the Jump, her drapers modeled one pattern on a chenille suit they found in a magazine, but even that is a leap for the shop. “The women here make their own patterns,” she says definitively.

And they have the equipment to build anything they cut. In 1972, Slaiman was pleased to have replaced home irons with two industrial steam irons; she had three industrial sewing machines and two portables that didn’t always work. Today there are three industrial irons and five industrial sewing machines, as well as two industrial sergers and five regular home machines. There are hat stretchers and steamers, and the craftsperson is looking into buying a hat maker. There is a dye vat, and five–count `em, five–full cutting tables, which are each about 8′ x 5′.

That makes it possible to do big shows with tough requirements. Agamemnon and His Daughters, a modern adaptation of the entire Oresteia that was set in a fantasy period, opened the current season. Part of one of the larger dressing rooms served as an extra area for cutting. Two extra drapers and five additional stitchers came onboard, working with fabrics that costume designer Lindsay Davis purchased in New York. Many garments required beads and glitter, and all of them were very large. “Every act was another play. It was like doing four plays in one evening,” Ranney-Howes says. Even though there were 18 people at work, everyone worked overtime. “We had to rebuild shoes, hats, crowns, and jewelry. We had some of the jewelry done in New York, and our craftsperson made the rest.”

In the early 70s, the cost of producing shows for Broadway was beginning to skyrocket, and the practice of developing plays at regional theatres and moving them to the Rialto was a new trend. Slaiman had designed costumes for Broadway-bound productions of The Great White Hope and Indians, and she had built them to last through a run that would be longer than usual.

“Our shows run nine weeks, and we do eight shows a week,” Ranney-Howes says, by way of explaining that garments for all shows must be strong because they will get a workout. “They have to be cleaned constantly, and actors do strange things in them.” Although the Arena has moved shows–Blue went to the Roundabout in New York–the shop knows that casts may change, and costumes are likely to be rebuilt for these moves.

A recent musical revue, Blues in the Night, originated at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and went to Dallas after its run at the Arena. Ranney-Howes says she purchased some of the clothes used in Atlanta, refurbishing them and replacing others. The show required elaborate dresses from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, which involved a good deal of beading and feathers; props included hats and a parasol. “There’s very little difference between this shop and New York shops, except that they’re larger,” says Ranney-Howes, adding that she’s seen costumes built for Broadway shows that are much sloppier. (Slaiman found that New York theatres had no facilities at all.) “No shortcuts are taken in this shop. These costumes are built as well as any high couturier piece. The amount of handwork and intricate detail work is comparable.”

After all, while both theatres at the Arena are fairly large, spectators get a close look at the costumes. “The theatres are designed in such a way that you’re never that far from the actors,” Ranney-Howes continues. “The main theatre is in the round. Even the top row isn’t far and the first row is practically in the actors’ laps. Everything has to be built so it can hold up to that kind of scrutiny.”

Technology has made it easier to do more things faster, and regional theatres operate on bigger budgets, with more equipment and larger staffs. But what was central to the regional theatre vision hasn’t changed in 30 years. “Here at the Arena, we give everything we have to each production. We’re not doing it for the money. It is an artistic endeavor. Every production is a real thing, a perfect entity that we try to achieve.” This isn’t Ranney-Howes, who worked some 80-hour days on Agamemnon talking. It was Slaiman, describing her commitment to art to a Theatre Crafts reporter, back in 1972.

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