- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

When Joe Salasovich, costume shop manager at Arena Stage, needed some sleeve- less leather doublets to dress several characters in the company’s production of “Passion Play, A Cycle,” he didn’t hesitate calling Cindy Abel Thom, costume director at Shakespeare Theatre Company, for a loan.

Likewise recently, when Jenn Miller, Signature Theatre’s costume shop manager, needed a farthingale for a Queen Elizabeth character in the company’s upcoming show, “The Beard of Avon,” she headed over to the Shakespeare’s shop on Eighth Street SE to choose some suitable clothes. The Shakespeare, in turn, borrows periodically from the Washington National Opera’s stock and even Chicago’s Lyric Opera.

A renting and lending life is the norm among local theater professionals charged with outfitting casts for constantly changing productions. It’s a whirlwind scene, with deadlines looming in rapid succession. Tech rehearsal is the key one for these behind-the-scenes stalwarts whose job is to make sure costumes follow a designer’s dictates and fit properly as well as look appropriate.

The greater Washington theatrical community is unusual in the degree of cooperation that takes place, several costume shop heads agree, speaking of their mutual regard and reliance.

Larger theaters have separate staff who handle backstage changes and maintain costumes between shows. Smaller theaters may only be able to afford a single full-time costume manager who hires outside help. Sometimes costume managers also are designers, and some managers freelance their design talents elsewhere, as well.

“Of course, our first impulse is to build as much as we can, but the limits of any costume shop mean you can make only so many by rehearsal time,” says Mr. Salasovich, now in his sixth season at Arena. His shop has three drapers, who make patterns, and three so-called first hands — the people who cut out the pattern and provide construction. “We are so blessed in this town because the costume shops all get along, so we can call one another up and ask them for what we need.”

He estimates that there is a “floating population” of some 50 skilled costume people and maintains that the quality of their work is high “compared to the national level.” New York designer Emilio Sosa, who was hired by Arena to design costumes for “Crowns,” says “the team here is so knowledgeable that I can come up with the wackiest ideas and they can make it work. It’s great having drapers who understand your needs and know [what is appropriate for specific] periods.

The Washington community is relatively small, but people in the business all over the country get to know one another, says Ms. Miller, a 2002 graduate of Mary Washington College and the first full-time shop employee at Signature. She credits former Mary Washington professor Rosemary Ingham, co-author with Liz Covey of the “The Costume Technician’s Handbook,” as her inspiration.

“We all have worked for each other in so many capacities, so you tend to know who needs help,” volunteers Mr. Salasovich, 30, a graduate of the University of Dayton who considers that his real theater education took place during internships at theaters in Williamstown, Mass., and Louisville, Ky. He also has been a designer for several small shows locally but says he finds it more exciting in many ways to be a manager and work with “brilliant designers” from elsewhere as well as skilled staff undaunted by challenge.

It’s not just Washington that benefits, he insists, naming theaters in Florida, Massachusetts, California, and Colorado that have rented from Arena in past months. “Designers will call up and say, ‘Do you remember when I designed this?’ and ‘We had this suit,’ and ‘Any chance I could borrow it?’ It is sort of a mafia of memories in a strange way. The other trick is knowing when someone has done a production similar to what you are looking for. When I was told we needed doublets for the Elizabethan period, I called friends at Shakespeare Theatre.”

Shakespeare and Arena, two of the largest and oldest companies locally, have reciprocal rental, meaning no fees are exchanged. For most others, the two will charge a dollar per piece per show, depending on the wear and tear resulting from eight performances a week for a month or more. The Washington National Opera is also part of what Mr. Salasovich calls “a triumvirate.”

New York theaters, by contrast, have costumes handled by professional rental studios whose charges are considerably higher.

All shop managers emphasize that outreach does not extend to loaning any part of their stock to the public for Halloween parties — despite continuing requests. The only time costumes become available are when organizations hold a sale.

Another advantage of working with Washington’s relatively close theatrical community is knowing many of the key actors by name and body type, points out Ms. Thom, 50, a master’s degree graduate of the University of Iowa now in her fourth season as Shakespeare’s costume director.

She has a full-time staff of 18, including two interns. The wardrobe department, in charge of maintenance, is separate, but she admits that she can do sewing for a repair job in a pinch.

Multi-tasking is the name of the game in Ms. Miller’s life. For every show, she creates what she calls a skeleton crew of “over-hire” employees — stitchers, craftspeople, milliners, etc., who typically come in two weeks before the first rehearsal and work until tech week about one month later. It helps that Signature’s opening date usually is two weeks ahead of the others, she notes. “It’s like an old-fashioned quilting bee.”

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