BWW Interview: Between Magic and Camouflage: The Costume Collection at MSMT
On a crisp October day a long line of eager people snakes around the block. For more than an hour now, a few excited customers have set up camp chairs to facilitate their wait. Shoppers at Hannaford across the street register curious stares. This is, after all, just a regular Saturday morning in the small town of Brunswick, Maine. So what has brought this clamoring crowd?
It is Maine State Music Theatre's annual costume sale, a time when the company weeds out thousands of garments and accessories from its rental stock and sells them at minimal cost to the public. The event, which has grown steadily in the past four years since Costumes Rentals Manager, Amy Mussman first conceived the idea, seems to reflect the community presence, the popularity of the theatre's costume rentals business, and its possibilities for continued growth. "The sale solves the practical needs of conserving space," says Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark, "and what we gain in community good will is immeasurable." Managing Director Stephanie Dupal concurs: "There is such excitement about the event, and it is a great way to connect."
But if MSMT offers thousands of costumes for sale each October, that only represents a small fraction of the overall holdings of their costume rental business. Dupal, who has been affiliated with the theatre for twenty-two years recalls how the rental business originated. "We used to rent sometimes from Seaside Costumes in Florida, and when they closed their doors in 2008, they wanted to sell their stock. We went down to see the collection and determined it would be good for us to have, but that to justify the operation, we would have to run it as a separate, viable business entity. We ran some numbers and felt it would work in that we could generate a little additional income and we would acquire a stock of wonderful costumes for ourselves, as well. Since that time the operation has doubled itself; we have increased our rental numbers as well as our staff, and we are adding about two new costume packages a year."
Clark says that having this costume rental division is "perhaps a luxury," but one that has many benefits. He cites, for example, the way "the costumed characters at the annual Follies evening give the event the festive air of Mardi Gras" or how having the rental stock can be helpful in an understudy situation." And Dupal adds that the rentals program contributes to our overall financial health, and as a not-for-profit, anything that does that helps."
The MSMT Costume Rentals collection is housed in six thousand square feet of loft space at Brunswick's Fort Andross. The huge area overlooking the Androscoggin falls and hydroelectric dam is crammed with row after row of racks with costumes organized by show for the complete packages and then by period for the general stock. Hats are suspended overhead, and bins store shoes, gloves, and accessories. One bright corner with a picture window is cleared for work tables, sewing machines, and a corner office. By Mussman's count there are hundreds of thousands of costumes and some forty-six complete rental packages.
A staff of two full time and one part time employees maintains this vast collection. Rentals Manager Mussman studied scenic, costume, and lighting design, and her resume includes serving as Props Master at the Delaware Theater Company and Costumes Rental Manager at the Washington Opera. She also authored an industry textbook, The Props Master, before coming to Maine to head MSMT's new rental division. She is assisted by Costumes Rentals Coordinator Travis Grant and Costume Rentals Assistant, Janna Klaiber. Grant, who studied costume design at University of Southern Maine, came to MSMT in 2011 to help build their Hairspray package and to work in the costume shop for the summer season before joining the rentals staff full time in 2013. He also moonlights with freelance design commissions throughout Maine and beyond in places like the Waterville Opera House, where he just designed The Rocky Horror Show and will create costumes for Mary Poppins in the spring. In addition to these gigs, he helps MSMT's interns design and produce the costumes for their children's shows each summer. Klaiber, too, holds degrees in both fashion merchandising and theatre, and works as a freelance costume designer throughout Maine, most notably at Lewiston's Public Theatre, where she will create attire for two productions this spring.
Mussman, Grant, and Klaiber are primarily responsible for handling the many rentals of MSMT's costume packages to other professional, community, and school theatre groups. This is a time and labor-intensive task. When a show package is rented, they pull the costume set and painstakingly go over every garment to make sure each button, hem, or trim is in place, that the clothes are all clean and labeled. "We slap our own wrists if a single label is missing," Mussman says, "even though that might be one out of several hundred. It is this attention to detail which sets MSMT's rentals operation apart."
Then they pack the wardrobe boxes for shipping and prepare the paperwork inventory - "sometimes twenty-five pages per show," Mussman says. "We try to imagine our customer's receiving the boxes, so we pack them in manageable units and send them about four weeks prior to their opening so they have time to alter them as needed."
When the costumes are returned to MSMT, the rentals staff goes over them again with the same care to prepare them for the next customer. "Sometimes we have to decide if a garment is too worn to be repaired and if we need to make a new one to replace it," Klaiber says.
Replacing can be tricky, too, as Clark notes "because if the costume is part of an identical set, matching fabric, trim, and achieving uniformity between the worn outfits and new one is difficult."
Nonetheless, the threesome believes as Grant puts it that "We have a quality product that is well taken care of, and we set the bar for ourselves very high."
Clark endorses his team's work: "I think one thing that is special about our staff is their attention to the costumes when they get them back. They are meticulous, and they make sure everything is just right before sending them out again to the next rental."
Scheduling the rentals can be challenging, Mussman says. "We are already booking now to the end of 2016 and into 2017," Grant adds, "and sometimes there is a big crunch to get several packages out at once.
Adding to the rental staff's need to multitask, they sometimes must balance the demands of their primary duties with the need to assist MSMT's costume designers and costume shop in the building of new show packages, which ultimately will be available for rental. In the past few seasons the costume rentals personnel have worked on Hairspray, LES MISERABLES, Mary Poppins, Chamberlain, Sister Act, and Music Man - all spectacularly elaborate designs.
"In Music Man designer Jeff Hendry created costumes with such incredibly beautiful details. Some dresses have cuffs with six different layers to produce these stunning visual effects," Grant explains. "In the case of that show, we began to drape, pattern, and prepare the costumes in February as soon as we received fabric from Hendry, and then we handed off the garments to MSMT's costume shop at Elm Street which operates from May to August for them to finish each outfit and fit it to the individual actor. So it is a collaborative effort. We coordinate and facilitate building the costumes; they coordinate and facilitate teching them, and wardrobe facilitates the show run. At the end, we all cooperate in getting them back here, and we add the new package to our rental inventory."
Such a production schedule often occasions both the costume shop and costume rentals crews to work simultaneously on more than one show, and sometimes to help make deadlines, they need to hire additional stitchers, as in the case of the grand 2014 production of Chamberlain with its elegant, sumptuous Civil War costumes, where ten temporary helpers were employed. As hectic as this may sound, Mussman says, "We love it when this room is full of people working! There is so much energy, and everyone's adrenalin is pumping. We love our company, and we love working with our designers and trying to make them happy."
Asked what she sees as the future for the costume rentals division, Mussman declares, "Our plan is to continue to grow, adding new packages and increasing the number of rentals. A dream for our staff would be to create a computerized data base with sorting capabilities that lists every single costume with a serial number and picture." She concedes that everyone realizes this would be a mammoth and costly undertaking, but it is, as Clark says, "one we can hopefully tackle at some point in the future."
Both Clark and Dupal recognize that the value of MSMT's Costume Rentals division is not only practical and concrete. "It's a growing company with lots of potential and so many intangible benefits," Clark affirms. "Not only do they handle the rentals business, but they help us in a crush with our main stage productions, and they contribute their expertise to our children's shows and to our outreach efforts," Dupal maintains.
Clark thinks that "having this rentals business is "somewhat unusual among regional theatres." He cites a few other companies like Kansas' Music Theatre of Wichita. "The costume rentals aspect serves as a bargaining tool for us when we enter talks about a co-production, and it helps us generate huge goodwill locally, where as Dupal notes, "We often rent at very nominal fees to neighboring schools and organizations as a mechanism of giving back."
Moreover, the costume rentals program gives MSMT a way to preserve and share some of these extraordinary creations with other audiences.
Moreover, Clark feels that "When the community sees our shows and sees our costumes, which are always a highlight, they cannot help feeling excited and impressed." Both on stage and off, there is something enchanted about the alchemy of designing, building, and donning costumes, and MSMT's collection embodies, communicates, and facilitates the thrill of that experience - the transformative, heady feeling once described by famous theatre designer Edith Head as "a cross between magic and camouflage.
MSMT Costume Rentals is located at Fort Andross, 14 Maine Street, Brunswick, ME, Suite 216 www.msmtcostumes.org