Heather Brown is used to stress and pressure, but even she admits that the crowd-pleasing "Oklahoma!" can be less of a dream show and more of a nightmare for theater designers and technicians.
Brown recently replaced outgoing University Theatre costume shop manager Mary Frances Hodson and walked right into one of the toughest assignments in American musical theater.
"This is something you just don't do if you just `like' theater," Brown said with a laugh. "And it is especially a tremendous responsibility for the students. With the hours they put in, they are really paying their dues. The strain can be fierce."
Don't get Brown wrong. She loves theater enough to have spent the last decade acquiring degrees and taking on numerous assignments in university and professional theater programs from Pennsylvania to Michigan and now at Kansas University.
But "Oklahoma!," with its large cast, requires a multitude of authentic turn-of-the-century costumes built in a way that allows performers to maneuver modern dance steps comfortably.
Therein lies the challenge.
The costume shop has been called upon to build 75 costumes for the 40-plus cast members in 35 days. (The musical will be performed Nov. 13-15 and 19-21 in Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall.) The costumes must replicate authentic 1907 garb, but they also must allow the dancers to pivot and pirouette while clothed in skirts, corsets, jeans and cowboy boots.
Smoothing out the wrinkles
John Staniunas, assistant professor of theater and director of "Oklahoma!," is aware of the show's challenges and is working with cast and crew to iron out potential obstacles.
"Costumes are important in my eyes, and we work toward authenticity," Staniunas said. "We work on the flavor of the period, so it doesn't just `sort of' look like `Oklahoma!'"
Preparation started last April with conferences with costume designer Liana White, who then spent the summer researching the time period and formulating design ideas.
When rehearsals started, Staniunas, Brown and White made sure the performers had practice outfits they could work in.
"We've had our lead girls in corsets, skirts and shoes ever since day one," he said.
"At our first meeting Liana sized everyone for shoes. The guys have been dancing in boots. Shoes change weight and balance. It changes the center of gravity and the kids are not used to it."
While the performers go through their paces on-stage, Brown, six student assistants and 17 lab assistants are going through their own paces in the costume shop on the lower level of Murphy Hall, measuring, stitching, sewing and keeping an eye on the calendar.
To take a play from start to finish, Brown rattles off the steps she, the designer and the shop personnel will go through. They include reading the script, researching, designing drafts, attending director meetings, making final designs, buying fabric, pulling existing costumes for potential alterations, engaging in pattern discussions and completing initial fittings.
"Then we have another discussion with the director to make sure he hasn't changed his mind -- although he usually does," she said with another laugh.
Then it is back for more fittings, crafts, makeup, accessories, final wrap-ups and the dress rehearsal.
"Then we open the show and I collapse from exhaustion," Brown said.
A balancing act
Creating new costumes or altering existing ones would be difficult enough if only one production were involved, but the costume shop is called upon to juggle preproduction work on other scheduled shows.
While they are in the midst of building "Oklahoma!" costumes, Brown and her staff also are focused on the upcoming productions of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and the children's play "Ramona Quimby."
"There is a range of styles, and it takes a completely different mindset to turn from one fitting to a different production meeting and back again," Brown said.
The costume shop is crammed full of sewing machines, dress dummies and work tables and is strewn with fabric, thread, scissors and costumes-in-progress.
The location more or less insulates the costumers from the rest of the production, a problem Brown and Staniunas acknowledge.
"It's tricky. The costume shop can get isolated down there," Staniunas said. "So we work on keeping the lines of communication open."
For Brown, it is just one more task to balance. On this late Friday afternoon, students and faculty are streaming away from the campus, but the costumers are still hard at work.
And after she leaves the shop, Brown will spend her Friday evening in Kansas City shopping for additional fabric and materials, doing her part to make "Oklahoma!" a success.
"People are attached to characters and a good story," she said. "And the costumes should be there to move the characters and the story along."
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