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Have Costume, Will Travel

Date: Sep 06, 2007


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Over the summer, many of us did some cross-country traveling. But how many of us, in the course of our travels, helped raise money toward reviving a historic American theatre building?

The TDF Costume Collection spent its summer "vacation" doing both: traveling to clothe actors in farflung productions from California to North Carolina, Florida to Maine, and more recently lending some of its priceless glamour to a benefit production of Othello staged by Connecticut-area actors to raise funds and publicity in efforts to revive the once-thriving American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn.

Under artistic director John Houseman, the famed Stratford Festival Theatre once played host to theatrical luminaries, in a 30-year heyday that stretched from 1955 to 1985. Efforts to rebuild and revive the theatre as a theatrical hub along the Housatonic River have been going on for years. The most recent effort was spearheaded by another renowned actor/manager: Robert Johansen, former artistic director of New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, who worked with actors from the Norwalk, Conn.-based Theatre Artists Workshop to stage the Bard's tragedy among the large trees on the grounds of the old theatre building.

Actors more or less donated their time, and the set by John Byrne was essentially a multilevel platform set that made the most of the outdoor setting. One thing the production--directed by Johansen, who also starred as Iago--couldn't skimp on was the costumes. Here Johansen turned to his former colleague, Greg Poplyk, who had designed Paper Mill's definitive productions of My Fair Lady, Carousel and Show Boat, and who now heads TDF's Costume Collection. In an innovative partnership, Poplyk arranged a barter system in which the value of costumes donated by the production to the TDF Collection could be exchanged for rentals.

"Greg dressed us so beautifully--we just looked fabulous," gushes Joanne Parady, who produced the play and starred as Emilia.

"This is not that rare," Poplyk explains. "Designers, individuals, and companies can donate costumes to us-and we give them a rental credit. We win, because we gain new stock, and they win, because they are able to stretch their rental budgets.”

The pieces the TDF Costume Collection can't use aren't trashed: They're donated to the Police Athletic League and to schools. Men's plain T-shirts are sent to shelters. There tends to be a glut of left-over shoes. Poplyk explains why.

"Because of Equity rules, shoes can't be used again if they're used in a dance number," Poplyk explains. "New shoes have to be made every time a chorus member gets replaced. So when Saturday Night Fever was on Broadway, for instance, we got a lot of shoes."

For the benefit staging of Othello, shoes were only the beginning. "For this production, they needed to get everything out of the collection: the footwear, the masks, the medallions, the swordbelts," Poplyk says.

Some of the costumes came from the Special Stock, a premium collection that has dressed up a production of Verdi's opera Otello. Indeed, Parady recalls with a startled laugh, "Our Cassio was wearing a costume that was Placido Domingo's! I had never been to the Costume Collection before, and I was just dazzled at all these costumes, beautifully laid out by period. I was just drooling! And Greg pulled out the most wonderful things to wear."

Parady counts the benefit a success toward a worthy cause.

"I grew up seeing plays performed at the Stratord Theatre, and it's always a sad thing that this building sits up, half renovated and half not," says Parady. "This was our second season of doing a benefit weekend, and it was a spectacular event. We had 500 people there with picnic baskets and the Housatonic in the background. The audience was on its feet at the end."

We've heard that clothes make the man, but in this case clothes from the TDF Costume Collection essentially made a whole show possible. Not a bad way to spend a vacation.