What’s Going on Down There? The Costume Shop in Summer

Costumes assembled on a rack in the Washington Revels shop
Costumes assembled on a rack in the Washington Revels shop

It’s July. It’s 85 degrees outside in a hazy, sluggish world full of Nature’s brightest greens, yellows and oranges. Of course no one is thinking about Christmas and December, right?

Wrong. In the busy and cool basement of Washington Revels, the costume team is scurrying around with a pace that suggests we might be on stage any moment now. There are different colors going on down here—gold, deep reds and blues, a patterned purple, some browns and tans. Summer doesn’t live down here, where actions and thoughts are populated by a Solstice celebration that is three and a half months away.

There’s antique lace zooming past to the left, and a rainbow of thread colors heading by on the right. Here’s something that looks like fabric leaves, there’s something that looks like part of a kingly robe, and then something that looks like…a placemat?

IMG_0061Mollie, the Associate Costume Designer, mumbles through the pin in her mouth “I had no idea what to expect here, and it has been remarkable. I came from college theater. Rosemary Pardee [the head Costume Designer] said I should come to Revels and I said: What’s Revels? I had no idea. Now I get it. It’s community, it’s family, it’s joyful, it’s creative—it’s really special. Every day I come to work and think— my friends would be jealous of me– I don’t work, I play! I throw things on a form, I paint things, I go home—it doesn’t feel like a job because I’m having so much fun.”

Mollie says Revels, and costuming for Revels, is about rethinking, repurposing, and renewing. “I’ve used materials I wouldn’t have considered before. It’s a good metaphor for Revels— we’re engaging in a nonconventional exploration of traditional things to create something new. Whether costume or performance or song, it engages your mind and your brain in a new way, while still feeling oddly familiar.”

The placemat is under discussion on Mollie’s right. She eyeballs it, raises an eyebrow, and then looks triumphant. “Just try this. Put this on your head.” Sigh. “I know it’s a placemat, but just try it!”

IMG_4887Over the last month the costume shop has been populated with volunteers who stop by regularly, as well as those who seem to live there. Lois, who started as a volunteer, worked on sets, ran the Wednesday-Night Work Parties, made hand-crafted merchandise, and did plenty of other things for “ages.” She then joined Revels staff as Costumier, and has been in the costume shop exclusively now for over ten years. Janice, who started volunteering at Revels in the 80’s, says she loves to be there because it’s completely outside of what she does anywhere else in her life. Lois agrees. “I love it– sewing is one of the things I love to do more than anything else—it satisfies a lot of my need to be creative. The fact that it’s different than what you’re doing all day at your job has tremendous appeal.”

IMG_4879Mollie and Lois both love the problem solving. “It’s kind of like doing a jigsaw puzzle,” says Mollie. “I have to make things fit, there are insane pieces and you have to figure out how they can go together. You say—hey, look at this fabric no one remembers– I found it in a bin in the back, and I think it might exactly fix this mess I’m in.”

Lois agrees. “It’s an exciting challenge trying to solve some of these problems– like this one right here,” she says, pointing to a complex-looking swath of material draped over a dress form. Lois suddenly appears to be her own age and a little girl all at once. She sighs. “It makes me think of my mother – who taught me to sew. Sewing was a place she could solve problems – like not enough fabric, or a hard to match pattern— she knew how to work around it. I feel like I’m channeling my mother—I think she’d be proud of me.”

All the costume volunteers agree– they solve the puzzles and fix the problems, and then appreciate seeing their work under lights for two weekends in December. “You work hard before the show,” says Lois, “and then the show is up on stage and you are still working hard, and suddenly there’s this moment– you pause and look out at the magic on stage and a costume swirls by you under a light, and you look at it and realize: I did that. That’s really moving.”

You’ll see the handiwork of Rosemary, Mollie, Lois, Robbie, Cecily, Rachel, Janice, Mike, Willa (and so many others) when it shimmers under the lights this December.