May 2011 Issue   

Late Night Musings from the Chair


•  Education Panels at Charlotte
Learning Through Helping
USITT National Conference 2011
Iowa's Diverse Cultures Explored
Medieval Mystery Play Staging



  • Schuler Shook
Gopher Stage Lighting
  • Contributing, Sustaining & Organizational Members


Section Notices

  • Websites and Digital Portfolios Needed
  • Time to Renew Your Membership?

Production Casebook

Dance Fans for White Christmas

Who's Minding the Store?


Resources & Info

  • Member Renewal Form
  • Mission & Information


Learning Through Helping in the SMU
Costume Shop

     It’s been a most unusual semester for the scene and costume shops at St. Mary’s this winter and spring. While our schedule has remained the same in the number of productions for the department of theatre and dance, the amount of labor and materials necessary was greatly LittleDresses1reduced due to the nature and style of the shows we mounted. Our first production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was not a large musical by any standard, and our second production was a series of short plays written, directed, designed, and mounted entirely by our students. Our final production, a dance showcase is currently in rehearsal and will be complete by the time of this reading. In all, these three works have been relatively light from the standpoints of scenery and costume needs. At the same time, our theatre production classes, which provide the majority of our shop’s labor pools were at an all time high for enrollment. (I know, such a problem, is this guy seriously going to complain about too many students?) No, but it has brought some issues, particularly for the costume shop; how do we keep all these students active and continue to teach them the skills that this class is meant to provide?
     Our costume shop manager, Alice Flo came up with an imaginative way to solve these potential problems. Through some research into charitable websites, she came across an organization called “Little Dresses for Africa”. The non-profit 501c3 distributes simple dresses and shorts for boys made from pillowcases throughout Africa as well as Central America and parts of the US. They developed the pillowcase pattern for simplicity and economy, but stress that this is only a suggestion and welcome any simple pattern and material. A promising solution was at hand.
      The initial step, after determining the worthiness of the project, was to develop a pattern based upon the “Little Dresses” plan. With the aidlittledresses2 of one of her student workers, Rebekah Kisrow, Alice created four full-sized patterns of varying sizes.  The same process was used to create three patterns for the boy’s shorts. It was from these choices that the students would learn to read patterns as well as perform all the lay-out and cutting of the fabric for their individual projects. Through this process, they would also learn to identify the specific properties of the grain and bias of the fabrics used and how to apply this information. The fabric itself came from the shop’s inventory of remnants as well as from donations, providing a rich array of color and pattern to the finished articles.
     The learning outcomes of this type of project have been great. So often in the rush of normal production work, there just isn’t the time available for many of our students to work at a pace that allows them to develop the variety of skills that this endeavor has provided. On average, it has taken approximately nine hours to create a dress from start to finish, and four hours per pair of shorts. While the dresses are done exclusively by machine sewing, the shorts have a fair amount of hand stitching that provides further challenges.  Although the students have all worked on the machines prior to taking the theatre production class, this process has given them a more in depth knowledge of how to set-up the machine for their individual needs. It has also allowed them to put into practice different stitches and patterns based on their own sense of style.
     According to Alice, one of the greatest outcomes of making this clothing is that the students have been more highly motivated to learn while working on these projects. They have a different sense of pride and desire to do their very best because they know that some child, who otherwise couldn’t afford a new dress, will be wearing what they make. This has also led them to hold each other to a higher standard as they compare their own work to their classmates. We, of course, hope that this experience and skill building will transfer into all of the future work that they do on department productions. The ultimate purpose of a class like this is to train through practice, and by giving them an assignment that increases their confidence and abilities while instilling a desire for quality, Alice has certainly succeeded with the “Little Dresses” semester.
     In all, thirty dresses and fifteen pairs of shorts have been made and will ship out by mid-May. While we know that this semester has proven to be the exception for our shops, it has been extremely rewarding on many levels to have had such a good substitute for the normal production work that we do at St. Mary’s. It is one more example of how diverse and practical the various arts and skills we employ in the theatre really are, and why we are so fortunate to be a part of it.

Author Kit Mayer is the Designer/ Technical Director at St. Mary's University, Winona, MN.