Performance » Theater

A Stitch in Time



The buttons on actress Jennifer Johansen's blouse were all wrong last month amid the run of "And Then They Came for Me" at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

But the calamity lasted only a few hours, thanks to quick stitching by costume shop staffer Aaron Wardwell. Tucked away in a back-of-the-theater department on the IRT's third floor on this late January day, Wardwell is troubleshooting. Mobile phone mashed to his ear, he explains to a dry cleaner that he appreciates his operation having replaced buttons that fell off, but the new ones they've added simply won't do -- they're too modern and thick for the play, set during World War II in the 1940s. So, thanks. But in the future consult with us first, he says kindly before hanging up.

Shop Manager Guy Clark oversees IRT's costume shop operations. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • Shop Manager Guy Clark oversees IRT's costume shop operations.

Afterward, Wardwell, the assistant to the costume shop's manager, readies himself to do a little impromptu sewing because Johansen is wearing the top on stage again soon.

Ridding herself of the bad buttons was of utmost importance to the actress, who portrayed a mother in James Still's account of two holocaust survivors. Johansen, who removed the blouse in front of the audience, had discovered the new, clunky buttons at an untimely moment the night before and she wanted the easier-to-use, smaller, mother-of-pearl versions back.

"It just threw us off a little bit," Wardwell says. "They didn't realize it was a costume piece. We'll deal with it. I've never had that happen before."

Such is a day in the behind-the-scenes life of any of the six staffers in the IRT's costume shop, where actors go to get their characters' all-important wardrobes. Department staffers cut, sew, design and repair clothes for all of the theater's productions, creating everything from Dickensian-era ladies and gentlemen with bonnets and bell-shaped skirts to present-day hipsters and futuristic families.

Shop Manager Guy Clark and his crew are never front-and-center with an audience -- they don't want that spotlight. Instead they quietly tell their part of the IRT's stories from a workshop that looks like something from the 1950s. Needle and thread in hand, staffers hunch over articles of clothing, reinforcing seams. Or they drape fabrics on forms, determining how to build a piece from nothing. No computers are in sight in this space. Rather, it is full of muslin and patterns on tables and costume renderings and multicolored thread spools on walls.

Actor Robert Neal of "Who Am I This Time" settles on this comfy Vonnegut-esque sweater for the show. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • Actor Robert Neal of "Who Am I This Time" settles on this comfy Vonnegut-esque sweater for the show.

"What you see when you come to a play is the tip of the iceberg. You only see the actors," explained Janet Allen, IRT artistic director. "But underneath is this giant superstructure of people who are ... building costumes, building scenery, sound, light props -- all that stuff ... It's an ancient, ancient business that is handcrafted and even though we have a lot of technology now, it doesn't really change."

Except the pool of people who do the work seems to be growing smaller, said Sally Ann Parsons, the New York City theatrical costumer who founded Parsons-Meares Limited, the shop that put the catsuits on Broadway's "Cats" and gave Julie Andrews her androgynous look for "Victor/Victoria." At Parsons-Meares Limited, where there are 35 to 40 staffers, it's getting harder to replace veteran personnel when they leave. Rent is too high in the city for a lot of young people to move in and get started, she says. And these days, clients want to pay less for their one-of-a-kind garments than they used to.

In Indianapolis, the story is different but similar. The IRT's shop had nine employees in 2008 and, during the economic squeeze, productions have gotten smaller, requiring fewer costumes.

"People think it's glamorous and it's not," said Parsons. "And they don't really understand what we do because so few people really sew nowadays."

It is, however, a labor of love, especially for Clark and his staff. They know they're part of a small, but special, breed of professionals.

"There are very few people in Indiana who make their living doing what we do," said Clark. "We're all fairly lucky."

Clark was just 19 when he left his Indianapolis home for New York City, where he worked as a costumer for two decades before signing on at the IRT in 2008. In New York, he worked for Parsons, outfitting the likes of Julie Andrews, Brooke Shields and Rosy O'Donnell, building her a bustier to wear in the Broadway production of "Grease." Eventually, he was commissioned to make a dress for Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to wear to the Grammys -- work that turned into more jobs until Clark signed on full-time at the IRT and couldn't balance the Indianapolis position and the travel that came with dressing Franklin. Before resigning, though, Clark made clothes for her to wear to President Barack Obama's first inauguration in January 2009.

All of that experience is something Clark brings to work with him daily at the IRT, where actors rely on his staff to communicate details of their characters to an audience while simultaneously making them attractive.

Old-school sewing essentials are favored over newfangled gizmos and tailoring tools at the IRT costume shop, where custom creations and alterations occur seamlessly. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • Old-school sewing essentials are favored over newfangled gizmos and tailoring tools at the IRT costume shop, where custom creations and alterations occur seamlessly.

"I always say you can't do your job well if you don't like actors," he says. "You have to like the kind of personality that becomes a performer. I love their willingness to take chances."

In the costume shop, trust is a big deal. Clark and his staff are charged with outfitting the IRT's casts in looks that create the aesthetic its directors want while putting actors in flattering, comfortable ensembles. And it isn't always easy, especially when someone in a bad mood is stripping down to his or her underwear for a fitting.

"That's why I say you have to like people," he says. "I have to assume, when we first meet that I'm going to like you, and I'm going to act like I like you. Now, it might turn out that I genuinely do or (I'll think) 'I hope we don't have that one back.'"

Like most people, actors bring a variety of personal issues with them when they come to work. Sometimes, they'll complain about their stage clothes when they aren't the problem at all - it's a phenomenon good costumers understand, says Clark.

"You may hate the part you have. You may hate who you're acting with. You may feel you're being directed in a terrible way. But those are all things you can't voice," he says. "You can voice, 'This pair of shoes doesn't fit.'"

When that sort of thing happens, Clark's staff is directed to keep cool and consider situations from the actor's point of view. Theater is a tough business, requiring its professionals to try out for part after part and take direction on everything from the way they walk and talk to the shoes they wear.

"I like that toughness," Clark says. "The ability to be vulnerable and also to survive it and usually they are just fun people."

After stitching up a jacket sleeve, Jerry Atwood steams out the crease left behind. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • After stitching up a jacket sleeve, Jerry Atwood steams out the crease left behind.

Still, even costumers have their limits. For Clark, his is connected to the talent an actor brings to the job.

"You'll put up with a lot from somebody who can make you feel something on stage," he says. "I've worked with actors who are just so talented that I don't care what they did, I would do anything they needed me to do because they are brilliant."

On this day in January, Clark is presiding over a variety of projects for an array of IRT productions, including a visit from one of his favorites, veteran actor Robert Neal. In his 13th season with the theater, Neal plays the male lead in Kurt Vonnegut's "Who Am I This Time (and Other Conundrums of Love)," which runs through Feb. 23.

While Wardwell takes on the button trouble, Neal is in the shop's fitting room, sweetly negotiating with Costume Designer Rachel Anne Healy. It's her job to choose the outfits for each character in the play, set sometime in the late 1950s.

Neal and Healy are trying to decide whether his Vonnegut-like character should wear a long-sleeved sweater or a sweater vest.

"I'm trying to create a homey feel," says Healy.

Eventually they settle on the vest, a piece Neal liked because he expected it to be more comfortable on stage.

Neal returns the affection from the IRT's costume shop staff. He likes working with them because they give him a chance to give his opinion on what his character will wear, a luxury he doesn't always get in other shops.

"I come in here and I know I can laugh and have a good time," says Neal. "I totally trust them."

To the IRT's costumers, that's a perfect fit.

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