Arts and Entertainment

Costume department seamlessly threads together

By Leigh Alon
Published: October 2009

Behind an inconspicuous door and past a labyrinth of winding stairs lies the mysterious underpinnings of the Newton South costume department. A few students can always be found milling about, sewing, stenciling, and fitting, surrounded by the many racks, space machines, and fabrics that clutter the room. At the center of it all, guiding the costumers as they work, is Martha Heller.

Heller, who runs the costume department, began volunteering at Newton South when her daughter was a student. After making the gown for Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, Heller continued volunteering, and after reading countless books on costume design and helpful tips from production teams, Heller now directs over 30 students working in the costume department.

She has also designed costumes for two plays at Waltham High School and Weston High School. Additionally, both Newton North and Beaver Country Day receive costumes for their productions from Newton South.

Heller is certainly a great mentor, enabling students to become an essential part of the costume process. “It’s a huge job for each production. I could never do the work by myself. The students learn quickly and do a major part of the work for each production. They contribute to every aspect of the process, Heller said.

Students work in the costume room an average of seven to 12 hours a week, researching time period and style, measuring the cast, sketching designs, and sometimes sewing a costume from scratch.

Costumers also have a deep appreciation for the time Heller puts in. “I don’t think any of us could have asked for a better mentor. She’s extremely patient and always ready to help us or the actors and welcomes those who are willing to lend a hand in costume production, junior Paulina Sterpe said.

Junior Abi Oshins also offered praise for Heller. “She’s organized, supportive, creative, and really easy to work with. The costume room wouldn’t be the same without her, she said.

Both Heller and the students work hard to create costumes that fit the characters of the show as well as capture the audience. In addition to being appropriate to the time period of the show, designs must correlate with the specific character, the director’s vision, and the set, lights, and sounds.

“Anything inspires me. It might be a museum exhibit, a magazine image, a TV show or movie, a particular artist or art style. It might be a particular fabric or trim. It might be a garment that I find in the South Stage costume collection or at Savers! Heller said.

“I’ve been able to see my designs leap off the paper and come to life.” — Abi Oshins, ’11

As they prepared for tomorrow’s performance of Burial at Thebes, experienced students were given the opportunity to apply their own creativity to costume design; Oshins designed the costumes for all the chorus members. “It has given me deeper insight into how the process of making costumes works. I’ve been able to see my designs leap off the paper and come to life. It’s exciting and satisfying at the same time, she said.

Similarly, Sterpe is currently working with fellow junior Rebecca Penzias in designing the costumes for the freshman play. “Seniors have been graduating, meaning their responsibility has shifted onto my shoulders and those of the other costumers so the dynamic has changed, Sterpe said.

Heller also revels in the success of students in making their creations come to life. “My favorite part of supervising the student designers is turning their design work [¦] into costumes that the actors can wear. I like the challenge of finding the right fabrics and then draping or using sewing patterns to create the costume. And the students love to see their designs on stage, she said.

The fall play, Burial at Thebes, has required the combined efforts of all the costumers. The show presents a unique challenge as the team must create costumes worn in the time of Ancient Greece.

This required extensive research of clothing, pottery, and sculpture from the time period; all the stencils on the clothing are from original Greek artwork. In addition, all clothing was made from scratch and draped over the actors, rather than form fitted as in past shows.

While Heller enjoys the challenge of designing for The Burial at Thebes she enjoys the variety offered by Shakespearean costuming. “Sometimes it is done in the style of Shakespeare’s time; sometimes the play is done in a style or time period that is more modern. Sometimes it is done in an imaginary time. My favorite Shakespeare project so far was The Tempest. I took my design inspiration from the Star Wars movies, she said.

Sterpe also holds an eccentric costume as her favorite, the costume for “Melissa in last year’s freshman play, involving a corset, tutu, and army boots.

Although few outside of the South Stage community know about the true amount of time, effort, and creativity which costuming requires, Newton South’s costuming department is another unique aspect of the school’s arts department which has been recognized for its excellence. The hours of research and being hidden away in the costume room have certainly paid off and resulted in many great costumes created both by Martha Heller and the students she instructs.

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