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Sewin' it for applause: Costume designers share secrets about creating looks for stage

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Costume designer Melissa Thurn says the first step in designing for a production is talking to the director and understanding the story. David Samson / The Forum2 / 5
Thurn sketches out ideas of what the characters clothing should look like and shops for fabrics locally or online. David Samson / The Forum3 / 5
Designers spent more than 25 hours constructing this costume for Ursula the Sea Witch in Trollwood's 2017 production of "The Little Mermaid." Forum file photo4 / 5
Costumes for contemporary or reality-based shows, such as this production of "Legally Blonde" at Trollwood in 2012, can be purchased at thrift stores or other retailers. Forum file photo 5 / 5

MOORHEAD — Ariana Grollman's loud, clear voice echoes off the walls of Moorhead's High School's black box theater space as she rehearses lines for her role as the pharaoh's daughter — Amneris — in the school's upcoming production of "Aida."

In contrast, just a few feet away, costume designer Melissa Thurn quietly and methodically traces a pattern of fabric that will become Amneris' wedding dress. Working behind the scenes — and in this case, nearly in the middle of it — costume designers for local theatrical productions help define the look of a show through sewing machines, trips to thrift stores and phone calls to theater friends across town.

While many people this time of year are looking for a costume to wear for Halloween, you might wonder how dozens of costumes are found at one time? Area designers shed light on where the costumes for high school, college and professional shows are found in Fargo-Moorhead.

'Start with the script'

Kelsy Hewitt — who works at Trollwood Performing Arts School and has earned a costume design degree from North Dakota State University — has worked on costumes for several productions all over town. She explains where they find costumes varies.

"In very general terms, I'd say — on the shows I've worked on — we've purchased costumes about 20 to 30 percent of the time, made them from scratch about 20 to 25 percent of the time, and the rest of the time we've pulled from other shows," Hewitt says.

Thurn, who was nationally recognized for her costume design work last year while still attending Concordia College, says the first step in designing for a production is talking to the director.

"With any show, we start with the script itself," she says. "For 'Aida' we know the setting is ancient Egypt, but we know it's a pop rock opera. So we have the juxtaposition of historical context with fashion, glitz, glamour and rock and roll. Our job is to fuse those together."

Thurn says research will provide guidance. In this case, she looked at costuming in hieroglyphics and even looked at how high-end designers like Dolce and Gabbana might have been influenced by Egyptian style.

After extensive exploration, she'll then sketch out ideas of what the characters' clothing should look like and shop for fabrics either here in town or online. She says it's rewarding when the fabrics just make sense.

"It's just amazing!" she says. "I got a shipment of fabric the other day from New York City. Opening that box was like Christmas to me. It was a gorgeous color and pattern and conveys just what I wanted it to convey."

Sophomore Jacqueline Bollom and Melissa Thurn talk about a costume for the Moorhead High School production of Aida. Dave Samson

Costume cooperation

Depending upon the show, designers and volunteers might put in several hours on just one costume. For example, Hewitt says the Ursula costume from last summer's Trollwood production of "The Little Mermaid" probably took 25 to 30 hours to make. Because "The Little Mermaid" is a popular show with elaborate costumes, they've had a lot of interest from theater companies around the region wanting to save time and money by renting Trollwood's costumes — something Trollwood has done twice already since the summer and plans to do again this spring.

Hewitt says the costumes themselves are in storage and categorized by show. She says they're not available for individual rental, but theater groups around town cooperate with each other to share when they can.

"Davies (High School) is doing 'Cabaret' which takes place in the '30s and '40s, so they could use some of our costumes from 'Crazy for You' or '42nd Street,'" Hewitt says. "They were gorgeous, so it makes sense."

Sometimes it's not entire show wardrobes that are needed. While Thurn and her volunteers are sewing costumes for "Aida," they're looking to borrow or rent certain items like headpieces from other companies.

Fantasy vs. reality

Some shows are certainly much easier than others when it comes to designing costumes. The designers say when you're looking at realistic and contemporary shows like "Rent," "Footloose" or "Legally Blonde," costumes are easier to track down in thrift stores or from other retailers than they would be for cartoon or fantasy-based shows like "The Lion King" or "Shrek."

"For 'Footloose,' there's that dance scene at the end where everyone is wearing '80s prom dresses," Hewitt says. "Sandy Thiel (who designs shows for Shanley and South High) bought out a bridal shop a few years ago, so those dresses worked really well."

Hewitt says occasionally they'll do a Facebook callout for costumes or ask an actor to bring something from home, but most of the time designers don't want to rely upon others.

Many theatrical designers, like Thurn and Hewitt, started their careers as actors on the stage so they know how wardrobe can help a performer bring a character to life. While costume designers aren't there on stage soaking in the applause, they say the job is still incredibly rewarding.

"It's magical. You had these visions. You've done the hard work — the blood, sweat and tears in putting it all together," Hewitt says. "It's pretty much a miracle to see it all come together."

Thurn agrees. "When you see characters you draw come to life on stage the way you envisioned it, it brings tears to the eyes," she says.

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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