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Artist of the month: Ellie Strayer


by Amy Morrill
Senior Ellie Strayer is March’s Artist of the Month because of her skill and passion for making costumes for many shows, including the upcoming musical, Oliver!.
Q: What are your inspirations for designs?
A: We design for characters in plays or musicals–right now we’re doing Oliver!–so we think of what the characters would wear and what they would look like, realistically. We try to put little motifs on their costumes. We use fabrics as inspiration if we see a really cool pattern or silhouette that we like. It’s different for period pieces because things have to be to date and realistic. In Oliver!, that’s one of the challenges we’ve faced. There’s so much research. We’ve watched every recording of Oliver! that’s ever been done. We did Prelude to a Kiss last year, which is set in the 90’s, and the designers just watched episode after episode of Friends. Sometimes it can be very fun, and sometimes you have to get right down to business and pull out what you need.
Q: Where do you get materials from?
A: A lot of people will donate to us, and a lot of making costumes is repurposing; if we find a piece that we really like or that we want to work with, we can cut up and sew it into something different, essentially recycling it. Also, “Joanne’s Fabric Store” has served as a huge resource for us. We do a lot of dying fabrics. We are able to manipulate color and pattern; dying stuff with lace is really fun. Last year when we did Once Upon a Mattress, which I designed also, for the ensemble we ordered tons of 50’s wedding dresses, to try to have a 50’s motif. We were able to control the color because we dyed them, and they gave us cool silhouettes.
Q: How did you get involved in the costumes department?
A: Freshman year I wanted to get involved with the big musical that we put on, but it ended up being a really big time commitment. As much as I was able to help out, I wasn’t really an asset to the costumes design crew. But when we did Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was like “this is what I want to do.” I sew, I’m creative, and I draw a lot, so I made it work for my schedule. It’s a big time commitment, but it’s so incredibly worth it. The designers watch the show every night, and there’s nothing more special than sitting down and seeing your artwork on stage, moving with the characters and coming alive. It’s so rewarding.

Costumes designed by costumes department for Oliver!
Costumes designed by costumes department for Oliver!

Q: When did you start designing the costumes for Oliver!?
A: The musical’s a whole different beast. It’s a monster just because there are so many moving parts. There are tons of ensemble members and leads, and each person will have three or four costumes on their own, if not more. Some people have ten costumes. It’s ridiculous. For the musical, we started gathering inspiration a few months before December break. We have a Pinterest board, and the designers—myself, Jessica Pullen-Schmidt, and Kayla Tynes—pinned different dresses and looks that we liked. That way we’re able to see what other people are pinning and can get the creative juices flowing. Then we make an inspiration board. For this production it’s a little different because we have so much inspiration and so many things moving around. Usually we have one inspiration board for every show. I painted pictures of each of the characters, and we put them on the board. We’ll pin sketches and fabrics next to them. So it’s a little different than the average inspirational boards we have, but it serves the same purpose.
Q: Who helps the designers making the costumes and running the show?
A: We have a lovely, wonderful crew of people who work with us. We just got some new recruits. Ruth Talvacchia is the costumes department head, and she’s on the administration staff with Theatre Ink. She runs a costumes class, which I highly recommend taking if you’re interested in costumes. She will choose and guide the designers throughout the year. She’s an incredible woman, and I love her so much. Also, in the last two years or so, we’ve had costumes managers. During the show, the designers will sit and take notes. Meanwhile, the managers are backstage making sure everyone’s on time for their changes, and making sure nothing goes wrong. They’re the ones running around with glue guns and duct tape last minute. They deal with the adrenaline, so I like my job a lot better.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you with the musical so close?
A: I have so many after school things happening. Typically, I will go to school, and then after school I’ll go straight to costumes. I’ll be there until as late as 6 or 6:15. I have appointments for my job after that. Just last week when I came back from costumes, I had back to back college interviews–one at 6:30 and one at 8. I’m a busy person. I think I’m an exception to the idea that “extracurriculars don’t interfere with life.” I think my extracurricular really is my life.
Q: Has working on costumes changed your perspective on anything?
A: When I set my mind to something, I can be very impulsive and controlling. I tend to think, “I’m going to do it by myself, and I don’t need any help.” Costumes has really been an outlet to develop a lot of my team building techniques. There are so many moving parts in the department, and it just requires people to trust each other and work together. In the heat of the moment, we might have to tape something backstage, and then the actress is flying out on stage and singing a number and coming back, and we’re hitting the sewing machines. Before I worked in the department, I hadn’t thought that teamwork meant being that close and trusting each other that much.
The inspiration board for Oliver!
The inspiration board for Oliver!

Q: What are some of your favorite things that you’ve created?
A: That’s hard! Last year [for Once Upon a Mattress] the designers split up into individual characters. I was able to get Winnifred, who’s the spunky new princess—she comes in and she shakes everything up—so I made all of her outfits. She had about five. She had this one green jumpsuit that came together during a time when my creative juices stopped flowing, and I had very little hope that we were going to get stuff done. I think it was my favorite thing that I made last year. The year before that, I made this really nice silver, sparkly dress for Aiden O’Neal, who played Dorothy in Millie. That was the first really big thing I made in the costumes department. I do try to sew some of my own clothes here and there, but seeing that on stage gave me the confidence I needed to be able to convince myself that I can make a dress. It was so sparkly, and it fit with the actresses personality so well. You know you did a good job when she’s coming up to you after the performance asking if she can wear it to junior prom.
Q: What has been the most gratifying part about making costumes?
A: In general, I’ve been able to learn a lot more about my aesthetic. No two designers will do something the same, even if it’s a costume that’s set in stone and iconic; things will be executed differently. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had to experience to unlock a lot of the aesthetic things about myself that were before a mystery. Specifically on Oliver!, part of my job is to put together things that I think will work, and then hand it off to someone, who will sew it or who will make it their own. So, my favorite part is giving someone, who’s new in the department, the opportunity to put together an outfit and make it their own because I love sharing the feeling of seeing something you’ve made up on stage. I think there is nothing more special.

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