Dec. 16, 2013Vol. 44, Issue 2

Creative Costuming

Costume Shop Supervisor Sandra Barton

Costume Shop Supervisor Sandra Barton

“Theatre is fun,” says Sandra Barton, costume shop supervisor, holding up a Joan of Arc-styled straightjacket.

She’s giving a tour of the warren of rooms in the depths of PAC where thousands of costumes are stored. The racks are sorted by period and contain just about everything imaginable—white men’s dress shirts in every size, hats upon hats, Victorian-like dresses with high lace collars. Most of the collection represents decades of School of the Arts (SOA) productions.

The piece Barton holds is one of her favorites, designed for a 2010 production of Chamber Music. Her creation features a medallion across the chest—painstakingly constructed with tiny metal objects. They clink together as she lifts the piece, making an eerie music.

Barton researched Chamber Music carefully before designing this and the other costumes, as she and her student assistants do for SOA’s five or more productions each season. The play takes place in an insane asylum and features a group of women who believe they are famous figures from different historical periods. Gertrude Stein, Queen Isabella I of Spain, and yes, Joan of Arc among them.

Barton styled each woman’s costume differently, considering their personality and era as well as the history of outsider art. Joan of Arc’s straightjacket is studded with the kinds of items known to have been swallowed by asylum residents, things like washers, paperclips, nails, and razor blades.

Barton says she loves the creativity inherent in her job of 25 years. It’s a combination of historical research, creative art, and the nitty-gritty mechanics of design and material. Each season, she and her student-staffed shop design and make everything from clothing to jewelry for every production. They also do makeup and hair. 

And, of course, they collaborate closely with the students, faculty, and staff doing all the other tasks associated with a major artistic production: lighting, set design, marketing, choreography, acting. “It’s all very connected,” says Barton. “We have so many people, and we all have to work in synchronization. It’s amazing.”

“Students are an integral part of the process,” she adds. In the costume shop, they help with everything from research and planning to creating the costumes.

In addition, one student a semester runs a costume rental business, loaning items to North State theatres. “They learn how to pull shows by analyzing the script and collaborating with clients, doing light bookkeeping, things like that,” Barton says. “The experience teaches them so much more than just sitting down and sewing some labels in and making some zippers. They start to develop managerial skills; they learn script analysis; they learn aesthetics; they learn how to work with people.”

The money from the business supports the student position, improves the costume shop equipment, and helps the Department of Music and Theatre. And, says Barton, the service helps local theatres, elevating the level of theatre in our community.

But she brings the conversation back to students in the end, because, she says, that’s why we’re here. “The theatre itself—and the University as a whole—isn’t just about creating a person who comes out of here able to do a job. It’s also about learning to be a good person in the world, someone who is well rounded, who is intelligent.

“I want our students to build on their experiences here and to think about the bigger picture when they leave—and know that the arts have done that for them.”

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications

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