Fantastic Fabric: MCT’s Costume Shop Open as Part of First Friday

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO, Media Relations Coordinator at MCT

One maxim of theatre is that a first-rate costume conveys who and what an actor is in a split second. Before the character even speaks, the design, nature and color of their clothing tells all. Sometimes complex, always engaging, suitable attire exhibits the nimble-fingered intent of the costumers… right down to the tiniest of buttons.

Outfits should be unified, proper, understated, and communicate the message of each scene. Perhaps too hidden of a component, a good costume spurs robust ticket sales.

For the Missoula Community Theatre’s Miracle on 34th Street The Musical, the costume shop sewed, stitched, and dressed everyone from a red-and-white clad Santa and black-nosed snowmen, to toy soldiers and marching band members. With dozens of actors involved, the sheer volume of costuming can be challenging. But, for MCT’s costumers, it’s no more than business as usual.

“We have just created costumes for the toy ballet and Macy’s Parade scenes,” says costumer Linda Muth, “We are making costumes for 60 people, who average three costumes per person. We love fantasy shows and the fantasy elements of costumes.”

Linda Muth, foreground, and her costuming cohort Susanne Davey, background, are part of MCT’s prolific costume shop, an entity which produces thousands of pieces of attire on a yearly basis.

Linda Muth, foreground, and her costuming cohort Susanne Davey, background, are part of MCT’s prolific costume shop, an entity which produces thousands of pieces of attire on a yearlybasis.

Muth understands that in addition to entertaining, costume design enhances the credibility of the performance; a good garment even helps an actor find their character. Good costuming enhances the visual story and seamlessly blends together action, words, and tempo.

Muth estimates that the average MCT production – whether part of the international tour, a home-based children’s theatre day camp, or a Missoula Community Theatre show – utilizes approximately 250 to 300 total costume pieces.

“We take it one show at a time,” says Muth, who also estimates and orders the amount of fabric the shop will need.

The costume shop is staffed by Muth (whose seniority stretches back to the summer of 1991) and six others costume technicians (Kara Chandler, Susanne Davey, Maeve H. Ball, Courtney Neuschwander, Ann Garrett, and Heather Rasley).

During the summer months, MCT routinely hires between 4-6 people to satisfy the workload. The exertion involved can be enormous, as Muth and company churn out tens of thousands of costumes on a yearly basis and need to recheck and examine the condition of all returning or used costume pieces.

Costume technician Kara Chandler works with the material which will become part of the attire of one of The Marvelous Wonderettes.

Costume technician Kara Chandler works with the material which will become part of the attire of one of The MarvelousWonderettes.

“People are amazed at just how much has to come out of these two rooms,” says Muth. “I bumped into someone recently who was amazed by our output. This shop runs five days a week, eight hours a day. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if this is a full-time position, or if they pay me to do this work, I’d have considerably more money.”

The resourcefulness of the costume shop is all-embracing and collaborative.

“There was one community theatre show that stretched us beyond what we had ever done,” says Muth. “That was Beauty and the Beast, with dancing china, teapots, and candelabras. We learned a lot from that one. One size fits a lot.”

Longevity is a key component of the costume making process as well, for one of the shops primary tasks is to make sure that a set of clothes will endure for years.

The MCT lobby, all dressed up for Christmas

First Friday at MCT, December 7, 4-8 p.m. Events include a visit from Santa, live music, carolers, light snacks, tours of the building, drawings/giftgiveaways.

Perhaps one of the most complimentary things that could be said about a first-class costume is that people often won’t even notice it. That’s because it should not distract the audience or divert their attention to a single character or garb.

Indeed, good costuming is an adept art. And by no means an unpleasant one.

“It’s a challenge making a human child look like a flamingo or a mosquito,” says Muth. “But a challenge we enjoy.”

Visit the costume shop on First Friday at MCT, December 7, 4-8 p.m. Events include a visit from Santa, live music, carolers, light snacks, tours of the building, drawings/gift giveaways. Location: 200 North Adams Street, Missoula. Info: (406) 728-1911. MCT’s costumes are available to rent year-round.

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Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.

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Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country NewsUSA TodayWisconsin TrailsBark MagazineMontana Magazine, and BackpackerMagazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.