I Blame Gilbert and Sullivan OR Why I Costume Theater

Me in the second production of “Pirates” that I both appeared in and helped to costume

My first major foray into costuming for community theater was for a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” with the Sudbury Savoyards in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Every year, the Savoyards did one production of “Gilbert and Sullivan on a grand scale,” which meant that we filled the local high school’s stage with a cast of, if not thousands, at least several dozen.

The Savoyards were one of the most egalitarian theater groups I have run across. At the time (1993), there was no audition for the chorus. We were trying to populate a large stage and, provided you showed up consistently for rehearsal and learned the show, we put a costume on you and you were in. If you had two left feet, the director blocked you in the back for the group dancing sequences. If you were consistently off-key, we stood you next to someone who could sing accurately and hoped he or she would be a good influence.

“The Pirates of Penzance” is one of the Big Three of Gilbert and Sullivan shows (the others being “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Mikado”) and consequently one of the shows that every Savoyard (as G&S fans call themselves) wants to perform. When the dust had settled and everyone who was going to drop out had, we were left with a cast of 73 people. Seventy. Three.

For those of you who are wondering, the answer is Yes. Yes, seventy-three is an insane number of people to put on one stage at the same time for a show, particularly when it’s an all volunteer cast. Sally, the director, went into herd management mode, dividing the men’s and women’s choruses into six groups apiece. The women were subdivided into the butterfly collectors, bookworms, equestrians, swimmers, badminton players, and flower girls. That way Sally could say “the swimmers move to downstage left” and leave it to the swimmers to sort out who exactly was standing where.

Each group had its own distinctive look and yes, again, seventy-three is an insane number of people to costume. Particularly when the costume designer, who was new to the job, has decided to make all new costumes for the show. And when the entire women’s chorus and four of the five female leads need two costumes apiece. And when about half of the men’s chorus switch from pirates to policemen halfway through the show so, again, two costumes apiece. Work days (held every Saturday through rehearsal season) became a more-than-usual frenzy of cutting, sewing and alterations.

We did manage to get everything made in time, including all 30-plus sets of Victorian nightgowns and nightcaps. And I learned the costumer’s cardinal rule: “No one will notice that from fifteen feet away.” I spent several more years helping the Sudbury Savoyards costume shows. For a few of them (including my second production of “Pirates”), I became the keeper of the spreadsheets, tracking measurements, who was wearing what, what was left to make, and who was still on track to go on stage half-dressed.

I learned that, in a cast of 40 or 50 or 60, there is always at least one person who swears that he (or usually she) can’t be caught dead in whatever color you have assigned him or her, despite the fact that stage makeup and lighting can change someone’s skin tone completely (and, besides, I would mutter under my breath, we have NO DAMN TIME to make you, chorus member x, something new when we have 39 or 49 or 59 other people to dress, so please just wear what I have found you. You are NOT THE STAR).

What a bustle cage really looked like – no pillow under the overskirt for these women.

I learned that the proper answer to “but this bustle makes my butt look huge” should probably be “but it makes your waist look so small,” even though I longed to say “yes, yes it does, that’s the whole point” or “it’s just a little pillow under the overskirt, the real thing was much worse.”

I learned to do whatever it took to make sure that everyone wound up on stage clothed by opening night, following through on the costume department’s part of our tech slogan: “Tech is what keeps the cast from performing pale and naked on a dark, empty stage.”

I stopped helping the Savoyards with costuming a few years before I moved away from the Boston area, when my car gave up the ghost and I didn’t replace it because I lived on public transit lines and I was trying to save money. That made it difficult to get out to the suburbs beyond the MBTA green line. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I got into a chance conversation with Jerry, the Tech Director of the Suffield Players, a community theater group in the town next to where I now live in Connecticut. We started talking about theater tech and, when I mentioned costuming, his eyes lit up and he handed me his card.

Jerry drafted me this January to help with the costuming for Suffield’s winter production of “Moon Over Buffalo.” When my co-costumer was felled by a particularly nasty cold which was making the rounds at the time, I fired up the spreadsheets and got to work.

“Moon” is considered a costume heavy show. It’s set in the early 1950’s, but it’s a theatrical farce so you also need to find costumes to fit the shows within the show – “Private Lives” (1920s/30s) and “Cyrano de Bergerac” (17th century). It has eight characters and a total of 24 costume changes in those three historical periods. After coming up with full Victorian drag for upwards of 70 people, it was a piece of cake. And no one went on stage naked.

Private Lives with a touch of Cyrano thrown in for “Moon Over Buffalo.” Photo by Jerry Zalewski.

“Moon Over Buffalo” 1950s with a mix of costumes found (thrift shop), borrowed (actors and director) and made for the show. Photo by Jerry Zalewski.

Cyrano de Bergerac in the dark for “Moon Over Buffalo.” Photo by Jerry Zalewski.

Cyrano de Bergerac in the light (backstage fencing practice) for “Moon Over Buffalo.” Photo by Jerry Zalewski.

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