On my first day as a volunteer with Shakespeare Theatre, I drank in the excitement. The palpable jitteriness backstage during a live show, playing charades and gesturing to avoiding making a sound — it’s what theatre geeks like me live for. Few things have a more intoxicating orbit than a theater stage.
It was March 2020 though, and with it came heightened concerns around Covid.
By late March, the literal and metaphoric curtains fell, and hundreds of lives in the theatre community were upturned, indefinitely.
“I remember the moment vividly,” Washington National Opera (WNO) Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf says of the shutdown announcement. “The Kennedy Center was shut down and we were told to go home. The costumes were left hanging there, ready to go.”
Innovating Ways to Help
LeBoeuf and her team at WNO were eventually furloughed — but not before she found some creative ways to use their costuming skills.
WNO’s costume team started making masks, first in the shop and then at home during the furlough.
“We tried to pivot very quickly,” LeBoeuf says. “We pulled every piece of fabric out of our stock that we knew was suitable for mask-making. In about three weeks, people were taking kits home.”
In total, LeBoeuf’s team was able to make and distribute about 1,000 masks to Sibley Hospital, Children’s National Hospital, Holy Cross Hospital and Tenleytown Trash.
Shakespeare Theatre followed suit. Shakespeare’s costume team, led by costume director Barbara Hicks, sewed masks in their respective homes, informally distributing them to various hospitals and homeless shelters.
“People [from the costume shop] picked an organization, set their mask production numbers and dropped them off,” Hicks says. “Early on, people would arrange to come into the shop and get materials. We had plenty of stuff that was perfect to use.”
Making masks also helped form a sense of community during an isolating time.
“We kept a group email and text chain going,” Hicks adds. “People would come up with new designs and the information would go around the group.”
LeBoeuf also used her time off to stay up-to-date with a couple of organizations she was part of, including the United States Institute for Theatre Technology and Opera America. Through Zoom, she deepened connections with colleagues who were “in the same boat” — some as far away as Europe.
“Our European colleagues opened up a little sooner than we did, and all [last] summer, we were learning how to deal with [Covid],” LeBoeuf says. “How do you handle a [costume] fitting in a situation where you’re not supposed to touch anything?”
Seeking Silver Linings
For Shakespeare Theatre, another silver lining emerged: having time to address much-needed administrative and logistical work. Shakespeare’s costume team was able to successfully move their stock of hundreds of costume and wardrobe pieces to a new storage facility — and relocate their shop to a new space.
“We did the move, which was a majority of our time,” Hicks says. “The department has spent a lot of time this year solving problems we never had time for.”
Natalie Kurczewski, Signature Theatre associate costume director, found the beginning of Covid as an appreciated pause.
“Weirdly, it was nice to have a break,” Kurczewski says. “I didn’t expect a break quite this long, but it was nice because things get nuts. You’re scrambling and time management skills have got to be at their peak.”
An Extra Layer of Burden
As time waned on, costume departments faced an extra layer of burden: financial uncertainty.
“Having been in this business forever, theaters struggle,” Hicks says, who worked in Detroit, Michigan and Dallas theaters before joining Shakespeare. “The idea that we would have no revenue for a period of time — it’s always in the back of your head.”
At WNO, 11 out of 13 of the costume team was laid off by November 2020. LeBoeuf and her colleague Mark Hamberger, WNO’s associate costume director, stayed on and were able to return to prepare for upcoming shows.
“It’s our hope that every single one of [our team members] can have their jobs back,” LeBoeuf says. “It will be a long, slow process back, though.”
Kurczewski and Frederick Deeben, Signature Theatre’s costume director, were able to stay, as well. Thanks to the community’s support, the pair was even able to help produce a five-show virtual film season, where they worked on the wardrobe and conducted fittings.
A Slow Return to Normal
Harnessing their innovative spirit, WNO was also able to produce shows in the new virtual environment. The theater presented two filmed shows intended to be viewed through virtual reality. LeBoeuf and Hamberger helped prepare costumes for camera, including designing, creating patterns, sewing and fitting the clothes. Pre-Covid, each of these tasks was designated to one craftsperson.
“We’re very devoted to our jobs, and very cognizant of the fact that we were lucky to be brought back,” LeBoeuf says.
Additionally, LeBoeuf was able to help with costumes for the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences, and created stand-in rainbow ribbon laurels for the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual award given to performing artists for lifetime contributions to American culture.
With in-person shows on the horizon for all three theaters, the costume departments are slowly returning to their busy pre-pandemic state — albeit with some changes.
“The biggest thing we’ve encountered is finding new ways to get things done,” Deeben says. “We really learned how to be creative. We still need to be open to how we do our jobs.”
For LeBoeuf, the audience is the primary concern. She hopes people will not hesitate when returning to see live shows — and that their excitement matches hers.
“I certainly hope there’s a hunger for the kind of performance you cannot get from a screen,” LaBoeuf says. “What we do is live performance. It’s scary, but it’s a fear we desperately want to experience. We need to get back.”
“Rent” is Signature Theatre’s inaugural show for their 2021-2022 season. Opening night is November 2. To learn more about the theatre and view the full schedule, visit sigtheatre.org or follow them on Instagram @sigtheatre.
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