Seams True

Sewing the Magic Behind Portland Center Stage

Costuming, like any dark art done well, is magic to the casual observer. Costumes spontaneously appear on stage—marvelous, fully formed—and then they’re gone. Enchanted by the actors’ performances and enveloped in a fantasy, theatergoers rarely consider how costumes are made. The work of a costumer is almost always intentionally shielded from view, often by their own hand. This is true of Portland Center Stage, where a team of full-time costumers busily stitch fictional clothing in a shop nestled deep inside the Armory building.

You might call it “theater magic,” but Alex Meadows, PCS costume shop manager, calls it work. He lovingly refers to the 2016–2017 season—his first year at the theater—as his baptism by fire. “I loved doing Astoria I. It was crazy,” Meadows laughs with both enthusiasm and exhaustion. He’s surrounded by sewing machines and outsize cutting tables. He still looks aghast that the play, a first installment of a two-part historical saga, demanded 666 costume pieces and a total of 150 costume changes—all of them engineered by his shop of six.

Nevertheless, his team was up for the challenge: “We had a cast of 15 or 16 actors, each playing four or five characters. A swath of people would come in, and two seconds later, they’d come back as another character. It was crazy backstage, but the beauty of it onstage is, it’s a huge cast, but you couldn’t tell.”

The sheer number of costumes in Astoria wasn’t the only issue the shop encountered. Like other shops its size, this one focuses on constructing women’s wear, and the menswear is usually rented and altered or hired out for ground-up builds. Typically, Meadows would rent the menswear for a show like Astoria, but the show’s timing made this difficult. “We were doing a period piece smack dab in the middle of Christmas, so Toni was terrified we wouldn’t be able to find the coats,” Meadows explains, referring to the play’s costume designer, Toni-Leslie James. Typically, men’s period rental coats are snatched up earlier in the year by theaters around the country, in a sort of seasonal Dickensian flurry.

Unable to rent coats in time, Meadows had to deal with his menswear problem the hard way: the PCS shop built a whopping 15 men’s tailcoats from the ground up. He estimates that the painstaking process of measuring, draping, fitting, and—finally—constructing the bespoke coats took about 60 hours. Each. “My shop was really proud of their work. The coats had a lot of character and style embedded in them,” he says.

While the shop mostly builds costumes for actors’ bodies, last season at PCS also required building parts of actors’ bodies for costumes. When Seymour gets a hankering to dance with his talking plant in Little Shop of Horrors, the costume shop brought the scene to life. “I hate to give away costume secrets,” Alex whispers, before proceeding to do so. That arm you see wrapping around the plant and holding it up? It’s a fake arm. The actor’s real arm is inside the plant, making it dance.

Of course, this simple-sounding trick didn’t come easy. The gag required a close trial-and-error collaboration between the costume shop and prop shop. Eventually, Meadows discovered he needed another identical coat for Seymour to wear when he’s not dancing with his plant. With luck and a little help from a highly responsive Etsy seller, Alex had his second coat overnighted to him. And the shop immediately went to work dyeing the new coat to perfectly match the original. “It was definitely a standout moment of, ‘Oh my God, how do we make this work?’ And we did it.”

After a season of unique challenges, Meadows relishes having the whole summer to plan for the upcoming 2017–18 season. PCS will remount Astoria I alongside the premiere of Astoria II and follow that up with a production of Major Barbara, another costume-heavy show.

The tricky season ahead is a puzzle the entire PCS team will work through together. “There’s a sense of love in this building that you don’t find many places,” he says, beaming. “I can’t tell you how much that made a difference, just being thrown into the fire and having people who are really supportive.” For Alex, it’s the magic makers on his team that make all the hard, hidden work worthwhile. – Erin Gilday | Photos by Kate Szrom, feature image courtesy of Portland Center Stage