Costume shop keeps Mesa State in stitches
Heather Waggoner finds herself on pins and needles constantly. It’s simply her job.
Waggoner, 63, leads Mesa State College’s theater department costume shop on the second floor of the Moss Performing Arts Center. But other than the 10 students and several adult volunteers who regularly work in the costume shop with Waggoner, the only people who bother taking the elevator up to the shop are the student actors who need to be measured or fitted.
That’s where the pins and needles come in.
There are hundreds of pins marking where hems should go or where fabric needs to be taken in. As for needles, the shop has nine sewing machines, two surgers, one industrial-strength sewing machine and one blind hemmer.
Then, of course, there is the occasional hand-stitching that needs to be done.
For Waggoner, a 15-year theater professor at Mesa State, sewing clothes and costumes, making patterns or any other task required of a costume shop worker is old hat. After all, she has been sewing clothes since she was a child. But her experience has given her the chance to instruct others in how to sew and the importance costumes play in theater.
“I’ve learned a lot since being here,” sophomore Sage Buchalter said. Three semesters ago, when she started putting in work study hours in the costume shop, Buchalter didn’t know how to sew a stitch. Now she has earned enough trust from Waggoner to work on her own. On a recent afternoon, Buchalter had to build a belt for her own costume to be used in performances of “Oklahoma!”
As a music theater major with her eyes on acting, the 19-year-old Buchalter is smart enough to know she may have to work her way onto the stage. As Heather says, ‘if you can’t get in the front door, go through the back,’ ” Buchalter said.
In the fall, a course on costume construction will be required for all theater majors in their sophomores year. The costume construction class will teach students how to sew, make patterns, handle fabric, a hot glue gun, spray paint and much more, said Waggoner, who will be the instructor.
Waggoner currently teaches four classes in addition to leading the costume shop. As performances near, the atmosphere gets even more frantic on the second floor. Since early February, Waggoner has been designing, pinning and sewing on three large projects and estimates she has worked about 72 hours a week between teaching and the costume shop.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Waggoner, Mark Matthews, a shop volunteer, and several students busily chatted while sitting at sewing machines and stitching costumes for the Beyond Boundaries dance concert (Feb. 10–12), the Renaissance Feast (Feb. 12) and “Oklahoma!”, which opens Thursday, Feb. 24.
It’s rare to have three events so close on the calendar and requiring dozens of costumes, Waggoner said.
However, when it happens, there is no choice about getting everything done. And Waggoner is a perfectionist.
After Valentine’s Day, the focus shifted solely to “Oklahoma!” and the nearly 80 costumes. It isn’t the largest production the costume shop has tackled, but it is one of the biggest in Waggoner’s 15 years.
And despite the shop’s hundreds of dresses, pants, hats, shoes and more hanging from racks or stacked in boxes, there wasn’t much other than cowboy hats that Waggoner and her staff could use for “Oklahoma!”
The musical is set in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, so the costumes had to be appropriate for the time period as well as the plot.
For example, lead actress Jen Walder, who plays farm girl Laurey Williams, changes four times as the musical tells the story of her romance with a cowboy. There are work clothes, a traveling suit, a wedding dress and a formal dress.
In preparation for making costumes for the musical, Waggoner researched rural Oklahoma through books, art and any other pictures she could find. She discussed with director Jeremy Franklin what each costume should look like. Then the actors met Waggoner and her staff and volunteers in the costume shop for consultations, fittings and re-fittings to ensure everything was time appropriate and well-fitted.
“We work in the suspension of disbelief, all theater does,” Franklin said. “The costumes are part of doing that, not only for the audience, but for the actors themselves.”
There are certain musicals, such as “Alice in Wonderland” or “Seussical,” in which the costumes are identifying characteristic of certain characters. The striped red and white top hat worn by the Cat in the Hat is an example, Waggoner said.
The costumes in “Oklahoma!” don’t fit that mold, and they aren’t supposed to, which puts Waggoner on pins and needles to make them period perfect although less noticeable, allowing the actors to shine.
Working on this production has taken countless hours (really, she has no idea how long), but thanks to Waggoner and her crew everything will be just so.