Onstage, the witch can’t quite get it right, so theatre director Joe Ann Brooks decides to show the kids how it’s done. She climbs onstage and gets behind a long piece of wood cut and painted to look like the side of a canoe. “Okay,” Brooks says, grabbing a long pole, “watch a 65-year-old woman do it.” With that, she gives a wicked laugh and begins pushing herself across the stage, looking just like she’s poling a canoe through still water instead of working a skateboardlike rig with her legs where the audience can’t see.
In the audience — the seats currently filled with kids waiting for their turn to rehearse — two mothers who have children in the show are hand-sewing black and gray felt raccoon tales. Downstairs, there’s more behind-the-scenes magic going on. Actors come and go being fitted for their costumes, and costumers at their sewing machines are working on bunny ears, deer bodies, and tunics for the Prince’s men.
Snow White, Seven Dwarfs, Prince Charming, Evil Queen, Witch, Huntsman, Magic Mirror, Young Queen, 5 ladies in waiting, 5 Prince’s men, young Snow White, 3 chipmunks, 1 turtle, 3 gray squirrels, 3 brown squirrels, 6 bluebirds, 6 bunnies, 5 doves, 5 bats, 5 gray raccoons, 1 owl, 1 crow, 1 buck, 2 does, 1 fawn.
That’s the list Costume Mistress Phyllis Bender and her team will be working on a stitch at a time until the premiere on February 26 of Snow White, the latest production by The Actors Conservatory Theatre (The ACT). Now in its eleventh year, the Lewisville-Flower Mound children’s theater puts on several productions annually, relying strictly on the efforts of dedicated volunteers like Bender and the talent of local kids.
This isn’t your average children’s theater. Everyone who auditions gets a part, and moms and dads get involved in everything from creating costumes and building sets to doing makeup and selling concessions. At any given rehearsal, while the kids are going over lines, “blocking” the show, or learning song-and-dance numbers, a dozen or more parents might be papier-machéing trees, filling in for a missing dance partner on a waltz, painting a wishing well, or whip-stitching ears on the head of a chipmunk costume.
It’s all part of the labor of love that is The ACT. Dedicated to bringing classic literature to young minds through the plays and musicals they put on, The ACT is also committed to a level of production that draws on the decades of professional experience of general production manager and artistic director Joe Ann Brooks. Chief among those high production values are the costumes, which Brooks and Bender begin brainstorming while Brooks is still busy writing the play.
“As Joe Ann writes her plays, she has a beautiful vision for the stage that begins to unfold as she discusses it with me, draws diagrams, and has me watch videos,” says Bender, who first got involved with The ACT five years ago. She began by volunteering for a production of Pinocchio, in which her children, Garrett and Lindsey, then 11 and 6, had roles. “One night around midnight while I was helping with painting the stage,” Bender recalls, “Joe Ann shared her story and vision for evolving the theater, and I thought that it was something I could support. A few nights later, I was constructing a huge whale costume.” For it, Bender worked with Brooks’ freehand drawing to arrive at a whale of a costume: 5 foot by 6 foot, so big it had to be cut out on a gymnasium floor. Bender’s husband, Frank (who also runs the sound booth), helped construct a brace for a tail, and between machine sewing and hand-sewing, she got it done. As challenging as it was, Bender enjoyed it so much that she’s been sewing costumes ever since.
One ACT play after another finds Brooks and Bender huddling over costumes. Once they’ve brainstormed, the work begins in earnest. Bender downloads reference photographs that will be posted in the sewing room for a dedicated team who will spend countless hours making and fitting costumes. First the team pulls from The ACT’s inventory to embellish on existing costumes. Whatever they can’t adapt from the inventory they will sew from scratch, either from existing patterns or from patterns they create. Then begins the process of choosing fabrics by type, weight, and color and purchasing — on the careful budget of a nonprofit — the material and any remaining costumes.
“Sewing has always been a part of my life,” says Bender, who hasn’t been far from a needle and thread since the age of 7. “The influence was present from my grandmother, who made quilts; my mother, with all the Easter dresses she made for my sister and me; and my aunt, for all the doll clothes and aprons she made when I was young.” Bender grew up sewing on a Singer and still has her grandmother’s treadle machine; now she sews on a Janome, which sits at the ready in a bank of other sewing machines in the costume department.
Upstairs in the theatre, it’s the first day “off book” — no rehearsing with the script from now on. While the actors work out their lines from memory, Snow White is practicing one of her musical numbers and the doves are working on fluttering body language at the wishing well. Downstairs, sewing machines are humming: The costume department is hard at work attaching bunny ears, stuffing deer tails with batting, fitting the Prince’s men for tunics and capes, and figuring out the next things on the list.
Next up, the doves. Bender pulls a blue tutu over her head and leaves it around her neck to demonstrate her vision to Terry Puryear, who has been putting the finishing touches on deer bodies. “They’ll have white bodysuits underneath,” Bender says, showing Puryear four swatches of pearlized diaphanous fabric. “And we’ll sew this shape all around, cut it out, turn it, and press it for the feathers. Are you seeing it?” Bender looks at Puryear to make sure the vision she is describing is registering. As soon as the dove costume has been communicated, they’re on to Puryear’s problem constructing antlers for the buck.
Wire? Fun Foam? Batting? Whatever they use, it will take hours of work and plenty of ingenuity to pull it off. Bender and Puryear will spend another hour after rehearsal brainstorming with volunteer moms Annette Argabright and Becky Dabney to figure out how to make antlers sturdy enough to hold clean clothes washed by the raccoons and light enough to allow the buck (played by Shelby White) to maneuver throughout the show. The solution: a hardhat from the bee costume in Winnie the Pooh, wire pipe insulation, duct tape (an essential in every show), and spray paint or fabric.
Somewhere in all the animal-parts activity, Bender’s right hand, longtime volunteer Debbie Cochran, has been knocking out the costumes for the all-important Seven Dwarfs. Cochran’s children aren’t in this particular show, but after years of volunteering for multiple productions, The ACT has become like family to her — and as with family matters, these volunteers try to be there when they’re needed.
With The ACT theatre family, the hours of effort definitely add up, but the rewards can’t really be quantified. “For Winnie the Pooh, I put in about 225 hours,” says Argabright, whose daughters, Annessa and Sarah, have been in six shows to date. While the girls have been rehearsing their parts as a dove and lady in waiting upstairs, Argabright has been in the costume department with Dabney pulling together the ladies in waiting and the Prince’s men. Whether it’s deer antlers or royal garb, for Argabright the payoff is in the creative outlet of sewing for The ACT and in seeing the costume department pulling off minor miracles to get everything done in time for the show to go on.
“The kids are always eager to come downstairs to get fitted and want to see their costume,” says Puryear, who has been volunteering for The ACT for two years and whose child is now in her seventh production. “Seeing the finished costume onstage and the children excited to wear them is a great reward.”
Bender couldn’t agree more — an enthusiasm that remains intact even after getting 91 kids costumed for a 2009 production of The King and I. “My reward is threefold,” Bender says. “First, the fun and challenging journey we costumers have as we share ideas, insights, and experiences that bring the costumes together. Then getting to know the actors and actresses on a personal basis. And, finally, when I am sitting there watching the show, I am totally amazed by how well all our efforts are brought to life.”
Snow White runs February 26-March 7, 2010. Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. Matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Edmonds Professional Office Building
1720 S. Edmonds (between Bellaire and Corporate)
Tickets on sale at the box office ½ hour before each show. Adults $12, students and seniors $10, kids under 10 $9; groups of 15 or more $9 each.
The ACT is a nonprofit 50l(c)(3) and depends on grants, donations, and volunteers to operate. The theatre’s current wish list includes
- The certified work of a licensed Electrician
- Sheetrock work
- Sanding and Flooring Work
- Lumber and materials for a back temporary wall
- Acoustical ceiling work
- A new rug
- A laminating machine
- Any flat latex paint, rollers, brushes, and tarps
- Raffle items for our raffles held at every performance
- Costume materials such as trim, braiding, ribbon, etc.
- Cash donations are always greatly appreciated and are tax-deductible.