York grads dominate theatre production floors


Above: Jen Contant, fourth-year York theatre student, working on a head block

Professional theatre really heats up in the summer, with a wealth of companies of all sizes mounting engaging productions all over the province. And it’s not surprising that “Yorkies” dominate their production floors, given the hands-on experience in producing large shows that York theatre students get as part of their education.

“Clothes maketh the man” and actors too. During the past seven months, Doris Haidner-Seif, head of wardrobe in York University’s Department of Theatre, and her student crew have built hundreds of costumes and accessories for Theatre @ York’s 2003-04 productions of Big Love, Shakuntala and The Comedy of Errors.

Right: On the left and right, designs by Jenine Kroeplin, fourth-year York theatre student, for The Comedy of Errors; and middle, costume design by Gillian Gallow, fourth-year York theatre student, for Big Love, both Theatre @ York productions

Like silent actors, costumes have their own role in a production. Searching for fabric that will breathe life into characters, Haidner-Seif’s team of students create it all from trousers, shirt, belt, socks and shoes to the last buttons and bows, while the actor looks for some grains of the character’s identity in the colour, nap, texture and fall of the cloth.

Costumes are very labour intensive, requiring research; consultation with the director and set and light designers; preparation of colour layouts; preliminary and final sketches; construction of rehearsal costumes to test the clothes “in action” and then the final fit. Sometimes a second costume may have to be produced in the event the understudy has to cover for a stretch.

For Shakuntala, a tale set in India, the wardrobe crew designed and built 219 pieces including accessory items such as slippers, bangles and turbans. They went shopping in Toronto’s “Little India” neighbourhood for just the right look and even hand-spun the dreadlocks for the production. On average, they were building one piece every 26 minutes.

The costuming activities that occur in wardrobe are numerous and varied. Seated around a generously-sized cutting table, the student wardrobe crew is surrounded by a profusion of fabrics, notions, gadgets and tools of the trade. While needle-nosed pliers reach for areas too tiny for fingers, another set of deft hands is pinning lace into place to accent a collar, accompanied by the hum of sewing machines.

Right: Bill Corcoran, York wardrobe assistant

Meanwhile creative imaginations at the other end of the table are doing the unexpected, converting an old tablecloth, curtain or slipcover into just the right thing for the show. It’s all part of wardrobe wizardry.

“That’s just the beginning,” says Haidner-Seif. “After each show, costumes have to be mended, washed and pressed for the next day’s performance. When the production closes, they have to be catalogued, cleaned and hung. The students do it all.”

Haidner-Seif graduated in 1985 from York University with a combined honours degree in design and German. She worked for a time as an alternationist at Creeds, an upscale women’s clothing store.

“What an education that was,” recalled Haidner-Seif. “I worked with women who had been in the business for more than 30 years, working on some of the most expensive clothing in the world. There was no room for half measures. Accuracy within a hairline measurement was the only acceptable standard.”

Left: Sarah Melamed, fourth-year theatre student, crafting a slipper

She then freelanced as a costume technician in several theatres throughout the GTA. In l986, she was hired to work on a show at York University, and that same year was offered a part-time job as the wardrobe manager.

In 1987, the job evolved into a full-time position and included teaching the costume component for the first-year stagecraft classes. After teaching that class for six years, Haidner-Seif settled into managing the wardrobe workshop.

Theatre department Chair and award-winning stage designer Shawn Kerwin, whose set and costume designs will be seen in Spirit of the Narrows and Salt Water Moon at the Blyth Festival this summer, remarked, “I’ve worked in universities and colleges across Canada, and have never seen undergraduate students design scenery, costumes and lighting for as many productions as we do here at York.

“At an international exhibition held by the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, China, last year, York was the only participating school whose productions were all designed by undergrads. Needless to say, I was very proud to be presenting student work from York in such a forum.”

Left: Some of York’s tailors’ dummies

The York theatre department’s wardrobe facility is the envy of many professional theatre companies in Canada. It boasts generous work spaces flooded with natural daylight, fabric dyeing facilities, laundry and fitting rooms, and an extensive inventory of patterns and notions, cutting and sewing equipment.

Behind a winter-white wall lies a stock room stuffed with resplendent crayola-bright fabrics in smurf blue, mango yellow and incendiary red. The space is efficient and comfortable for its many student occupants who spend long hours “on needles and pins” in the weeks leading up to a show. The room itself is like an exhibition, constantly changing to showcase the latest production.

York theatre alumni who have gone on to successful careers in costume design and production include:

  • Charlotte Dean, a veteran of many seasons at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, whose latest Toronto credits include costumes for Rune Arlidge, which just completed its run at the Tarragon Theatre, and the CanStage production of Pelagie that opened April 8;
  • Jeff Churchill, assistant head of wardrobe for Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría, which opens in Toronto on August 19;
  • Dana Osborne, costume designer for the Stratford Festival production of Timon of Athens, opening June 5;
  • Deeter Schurig, associate designer for the COC’s Ring Cycle, who designed costumes and sets for Number One and Jamie currently running at Toronto’s Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, and for Tinker’s Wedding, opening on June 16 at the Shaw Festival  

This story and its accompanying photographs was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena, publicist, Faculty of Fine Arts.