CMTSJ’s costume crew works hard to do things oh sew right

Elijah Ramos, right, puts on his red coat, one of four costumes he had to switch in and out of in Children’s Musical Theater San Jose’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” this past March. (All photos by David John Chávez)

There’s a lot that takes place between getting cast in a musical and making it to opening night. There are lines to learn, dance steps to solidify, songs to harmonize, scenes to run. And every day of rehearsal is one day closer to another op’nin’ of another show.

While there are plenty of production benchmarks that make the big night feel closer, none of those compares to the moment when a performer tries on a costume for the first time.

Elijah Ramos knows that feeling well. The 14-year-old Evergreen Valley High School freshman spent this year’s early spring at Children’s Musical Theater San Jose (CMTSJ) in the Mainstage production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” his fourth show with the prestigious company.

Elijah dealt with four costumes in the show, with a few of those having to be put on in rapid fire succession. And while every aspect of doing theatre appeals to the engaging young man, putting on the duds of his character fills a special place in his heart.

“I love putting on costumes, and whenever I put one on and look in the mirror for the first time, it really helps me get into character,” said Elijah. “It just feels like the real deal, we’re now one step ahead of the game and really getting ready.”

CMTSJ has a pretty straightforward system – everyone pays the fee, and everyone is cast. That means everyone gets a costume. That means there are a lot of costumes.

A LOT of costumes.

Elijah, center, and cast mates put final touches on their costumes before curtain time.

A CMTSJ show can see hundreds of costumes go through their stage during any given show. Some shows are lighter on the costume budget than others, but the sheer volume of performers ensure that there are lots of young talents of all shapes and sizes digging deep into looking the part.

The company is broken up into four levels, and three of those levels cast everyone. All auditioners are cast in Junior Talents (Summer only), Rising Stars and Mainstage, which range from ages six to 18. Every production has two, even three casts depending on the amount of performers who sign up. Marquee productions include all ages and talent levels with no guaranteed casting, and many CMTSJ alumni come back and work on Marquee as performers, directors, choreographers and other jobs on the support and creative teams.

When a performer is cast, all costumes are in the hands of Suzie Brown, quite literally. Brown has spent the last seven years at CMTSJ ever since both her daughters were participants. As all parents are required to volunteer for various tasks to produce a show, Brown initially chose to watch over rehearsals as a supervisor. But that changed quickly when a few volunteers saw her sitting and watching, and asked if she knew how to sew. That was her first and last day on rehearsal supervision duty.

Seven years later, as they say, the rest is history.

Brown’s girls aged out of the company and left home for college, but Brown herself was just getting started. For five years, she worked on costumes, and two years ago she took over as the costume shop supervisor, manning the downstage left corner of the massive warehouse on Parkmoor Avenue.

While a 30-year career in Silicon Valley was her livelihood before her costuming adventures began, she’s found herself a new pair of shoes that fit like a glove.

“It brings me a lot of joy, and I truly enjoy working with every person at CMT,” said Brown. “Coming into the job felt very natural and as long as my eyes and hands can hold out, I would love to continue to sew and do pieces for them.

“I can’t imagine not doing it, I really can’t.”

According to CMTSJ’s Managing Director Dana Zell, the number of participants per show ranges anywhere from 80 to 200. In addition to Brown, there are also three costume designers, and all four float and handle other tasks such as hair and makeup.

A typical costumer’s life includes many components – coffee, sewing, scissors and measurements. What it doesn’t always include are things like dinner at a normal time and sleep. While there is probably no one who doesn’t enjoy a good slumber, Brown understands that lack of shut eye comes with the territory, but in the end, it’s all worth it.

Performers jump into song, dance and costumes before hitting the stage.

“Sometimes we are sewing all night, sewing at rehearsal, and thinking why are we doing this, why are we making these changes? But then they go on stage and there are these beautiful performers smiling and hugging you after the show. You love it, and then go on to the next one completely forgetting how hard it was.

“The outcome always outweighs whatever frustration you go through, and you always wish you had a little extra time.”

Noreen Styliadis has spent the past six years as a costume designer, a position that changes personnel from show to show. She certainly agrees that more sleep would be dreamy, but with the number of participants and demands of the show being what they are, sleep often has to wait.

“It’s basically a six to eight-week lead time for the younger kids, but being that there are generally 160 kids, that’s a very short window to get and build costumes for a large ensemble as well as leads with a couple of costumes,” said Styliadis. “Thank goodness we have really dedicated and wonderful people that help over and above what is even asked of them.”

What is even more challenging for the costume crew is the way CMTSJ manufactures their costumes. While the company never does a show more than three times, they do not recycle in traditional ways. You will find costumes in the warehouse that fit specific periods, but you won’t find boxes of shows that are trotted out when the season is announced.

“It brings me a lot of joy, and I truly enjoy working with every person at CMT. Coming into the job felt very natural and as long as my eyes and hands can hold out, I would love to continue to sew and do pieces for them. I can’t imagine not doing it, I really can’t.” – Suzie Brown, CMTSJ Costume Shop Supervisor and costume designer

That might be a lot of work for the crew, but it guarantees that they will use one of the most important skills that brought them to the sewing tables in the first place – their creativity.

“The directors give us such creative license to think outside the box, and even when the pieces are iconic, the directors let us put our spin on those pieces,” said Brown.

For Styliadis, that creative control manifested itself in one of her favorite pieces to date, a truly iconic costume that was introduced to the world in 1991 via an Oscar-nominated and animated Disney film, a show that recently closed at CMTSJ.

“In ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ my yellow Belle dress was beautiful,” said Styliadis. “It didn’t look like anything else I’d ever done and it was just gorgeous on her. Every time I saw it I loved it more.”

The in-show repair station is ready to go on the bottom floor of the Montgomery Theater.

While the audience gets to see the magic of a perfectly constructed costume on the stage, there is wonderfully controlled chaos in the wings and below the stage, where the Montgomery Theater’s heartbeat lies. The Montgomery in Downtown San Jose, where CMTSJ is a resident company, houses their dressing rooms on the bottom floor. And dead center of that floor is a crew that’s always ready to save the day from busting buttons, torn trousers and stained shirts.

It’s something Elijah experienced multiple times when changing in and out of costumes. Parent volunteers are stationed everywhere ready to implement their own version of choreography, some of it planned out in dress rehearsals, but much of it improvised with plenty of fabric magicians ready to do their thing.

“The costumes aren’t hard to go in and out of, and they think of a lot of things so you can do a quick change faster,” said Elijah. “During ‘Gentleman’s Guide,’ I had a coat with a button that would always fall off, and they would sew it back on. There was one instance where I didn’t have time and really needed to go on stage. They were there sewing and safety pinning, and are always on us.”

Both Brown and Styliadis described the grind of costuming as a labor of love. And despite the fact that there are some downsides to costuming, such as occasional disagreements with other members of the creative team, not finding the right fabrics, or really noticing the costume flaws in productions they attend elsewhere because of a highly developed and trained eye, they are thrilled at being part of great families with great kids contributing to great shows.

For Brown, there is always satisfaction long after the stage lights stop illuminating her work and the work of all the folks who call the costume shop their artistic home.

“There are many times when we are pulling our work right to the edge to make it to dress rehearsal,” said Brown. “But I can’t name a show that our current group worked on where we weren’t completely happy afterward.”

Twitter: @cmtsj

Families and friends of performers get up close and personal with the talent and costumes at the end of another performance.

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