Sewing the whole show together

Actress Lynn Milgrim will step onto the main stage at South Coast Repertory on Friday night as Mrs. Carrie Watts.

To inhabit the role of the protagonist in Horton Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful," Milgrim will don an old-fashioned lavender cotton dress. The play is about a middle-aged Texas woman traveling on a bus in the 1950s in search of her hometown in the American heartland.

"A Trip to Bountiful" is a work of fiction, but the dress has a true story to tell that the SCR production won't reveal to audiences as it previews throughout the week and officially opens on Oct. 28.

To help the actress bring Foote's story to life, at least five pairs of female hands formed an assembly line that designed and made the dress under a tight deadline.

Mrs. Carrie's dress is just one piece in a wardrobe of period costumes that will clothe the characters in "A Trip to Bountiful." And it is only one of the elements in the play, like the props and the sets, that the theater company mostly built from scratch inside the specialized workshops at its Costa Mesa home.

"The whole reason we're here is to help to tell the story of the play," said Amy Hutto, manager for the past 15 years of SCR's in-house costume shop.

"We do it through visuals, the actors do it through movement and words, but we're all reaching for the same goal of telling a story together," she added.


Inside the shop

The SCR Costume Shop is downstairs in the theater company's warren of a basement. The shop is a large room populated by sewing machines, tape measures, needles, spindles of string and rolls of cloth in an assortment of fabrics and colors, as well as mannequins in various states of dress or undress.

During a visit to the shop on a recent Tuesday, the inert dummies seemed to outnumber the four women who were working away on costumes and other clothing accessories that would dress the cast of "A Trip to Bountiful."

Three full-time staffers — Hutto, cutter/draper Catherine Esera, and Laurie Donati — were in the room with a freelancer, Melody Brocious. She was assisting the costume designer, Angela Calin, who was off-site that day. A fourth full-time staffer, Bert Henert, the only man in Hutto's department, works upstairs in a wardrobe room. He is responsible for washing and maintaining each costume and its custom-tailored duplicate, and mending any tears or fixing any buttons that might come off in mid-show.

Off to the side, one of the mannequins wore Mrs. Carrie's lavender dress.

Hutto leaned over a set of renderings that Calin had sketched for this and other costumes in the play. The colorful drawings were a fashionista's fantasy. They resembled images from a fashion show, circa the 1950s.

The actress Milgrim was scheduled to come in that afternoon to try on the dress.

"We will have a fitting with the actor and make any changes that may need to happen so that, when we go into the fabric, we've figured most of that out," Hutto said, as a sewing machine hummed in the background.

"You know, 'cause it may be, 'Oh, the sleeve should be a little shorter to look nice on this person,' or 'the neckline should be a little higher….'"

And because actors and actresses tend to be a transient bunch who only show up in the run-up to a given production, the players have to have their measurements taken on site. Their waist, chest, neck and hem lines can expand or shrink with the years and the changing seasons and climates. Which leaves Hutto and her staffers with a narrow window for building and making adjustments to the costumes.

Because the workload can be immense, Hutto at times has to hire more freelancers and contracted workers to help out with costume-making.

On the day of the visit, Oct. 12, Hutto and her crew were fresh off building some 70 Victorian period pieces for SCR's production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

"… From the first day of rehearsal till the first day it's on stage, we have about three and a half weeks," the costume shop manager noted.

The renderings made by the costume designer then go to the cutter/draper, Esera, who wore a pair of scissors dangling around her neck on a ribbon. She explained the next stages of the costume-building process:

Using the renderings as a reference, she cut out paper shapes that served as building blocks for a mock version of the costume, usually made of muslin. She built the real dress after the actress tried on the mock dress, making necessary adjustments along the way and tweaking the paper shapes accordingly.

After a production ends, the costumes are stored in SCR's warehouse in Santa Ana. The volume of the costume shop's output alone that is held there represents around 100,000 pieces, including costumes and accessories like hats, shoes and eyeglasses.

"Our company has been in business for 47 years, so we have a lot of stuff left over from other shows, and we hopefully recycle it into other things," said Hutto, who had lost count of the number of SCR productions to which her shop has contributed.


From Bucharest to Balboa

The story of the lavender dress begins and ends with the costume's designer, Calin, a Balboa Islander and freelancer who emigrated to the U.S. from communist Romania in the 1980s.

The designer's resume is long. Calin received her training and a master of fine arts in set and costume design from the Academy of Arts in Bucharest, the Romanian capital.

Even though Romania then was under the Ceaucescu dictatorship, Romanian artists knew how to adapt their work to and express themselves freely within the constraints of a communist society, Calin said in a phone interview.

Ironically, she pointed out, communist states can unwittingly foster artistic creativity while ruling with an iron fist.

"Being a communist country, we all learned how to use metaphor, how to read between the lines," she said. "That was the only way to survive in that oppressive world, and, plus, you would have to use your imagination to create something."

The freelancer's work schedule is hectic. It takes her around California and out-of-state. She has worked on productions at the Hollywood Bowl, the Laguna Playhouse and the Old Globe in San Diego.

Her costume design credits include numerous productions at South Coast Rep directed by SCR mainstay and co-founder Martin Benson, who is directing "A Trip to Bountiful." The director gives input and has the final say in how the costumes should look on the actors.

Calin came to Southern California in the mid-80s, when her Romanian-born husband, a naturalized U.S. citizen, brought her stateside. After having worked on theatrical productions in Romania, she started out in the United States working on low-budget films.

She has since returned to her first love, the theatrical world. Calin said it offers her more artistic freedom than a film set.

She had never set foot in Texas, where "A Trip to Bountiful" is set, so she had to do more research than usual, in this case about the Houston area in the 50s.

She watched films made in the period. She also pored over old magazines and newspapers via the Internet to get a sense of how Texans dressed in those times. Then she compiled so-called "costume breakdowns" for each character, files of sketches and notes that eventually became renderings.

Calin just returned from Colorado, where the Denver Center Theatre Co. was staging Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Through the experience of designing the costumes for that story about racially-segregated Alabama in the 1930s, her life has come full circle, Calin said.

Even in Ceaucescu's Romania, it was possible to watch Hollywood-made films.

Calin can remember watching the 1962 film adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird," starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, with her parents when she was a girl.

The film spurred a family conversation around how Americans and Romanians approached parenting differently, she said.

"How life has a funny way of working out…," Calin said. "I have very vivid memories from my early youth watching ['Mockingbird'], and then here I am — what some 40 years later — doing a show like that."

Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: Horton Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful" (Directed by Martin Benson)

Where: Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: In previews from Oct. 21-27; Opens on Oct. 28; Regular shows from Oct. 29-Nov. 20

Tickets and show information: Go to, or call (714) 708 5555.

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