I guess if you were to give my profession, my vocation, my passion, a title, it would be “Costume Technician.” There are many different titles that fall under that umbrella and I have had most of them: Stitcher, First Hand, Draper, Costume Craftsperson, even running wardrobe backstage.
Quite honestly, I’m wholly unqualified to do anything else. In high school, I babysat but never had a job in retail or serving. The summer after I graduated high school, I tried to get a job. I applied to anywhere in the mall that was hiring, as well as some restaurants. I was discouraged by the fact that they wanted to hire someone with prior experience, and yet I was just starting out. How was I supposed to get experience if I needed experience to get the job?
I ended up getting a job at Bath and Body Works, and, despite being shy, I found that I really had a talent for selling those gift baskets. I was just starting to learn how to operate the cash register when, about 20 hours into my new “career,” I was told that, unfortunately, they weren’t hitting their summer numbers and had to let go of their seasonal employees.
So I have 20 hours of experience working retail.
And still none serving, being a barista, or anything else remotely “marketable” in a mainstream sense. And I would rather live in a dumpster than be a nanny nowadays.
Looks like I’m going to have to keep staying gainfully employed in theatre. Otherwise I’m screwed.
I started off college thinking that I wanted to major in “Musical Theatre Performance.” I quickly learned that I didn’t have the talent or the passion and drive that I would need to be a freelance performer.
I got a work study job in my college costume shop, and I realized that all of the floating puzzle pieces began to fall into place. I had always been interested in history, and especially historical fashion. I sincerely think that the American Girl books and dolls helped direct my career path. I had always been crafty, and though had minimal sewing experience, I had always grown up around it. My mom sewed my costumes whenever I was in plays, so I always helped pick the fabrics and the patterns and such.
Costumes it was.
I was given opportunities to design costumes for several mainstage shows at my undergrad, and I discovered I had quite the knack for it.
I also worked in the costume shop as a technician, learning how to sew, pattern, and distress costumes. In the summers, I worked at multiple regional theatres in their costume shops as a stitcher, and further developed those skills in a professional setting.
I have always known that I wanted to teach, and so I decided that, since one needed a terminal degree to be a college professor, that meant I would need to get an MFA. I also knew that it was so easy to lose momentum, so I really wanted to go straight from undergrad to grad school.
I was able to do so, and was accepted into my top choice school.
Dude, everyone always exclaimed “Oh, how fun!” when they learned that I was in grad school for costume design. And I wanted to punch them in the face. It was the most grueling experience in my life, and, though I’m glad I did it, I legitimately think I had some PTSD from it.
It was three years of pure exhaustion. There were times in which I would drink a large cup of strong coffee and a Monster energy drink and still be falling asleep standing up while drawing naked people in a Life Drawing class.
I slept in shifts, from midnight to 2 AM, then attempted to finish my homework after that little nap, and hoped to get it done in time to be able to catch a few more hours before I needed to be back at school.
Halfway through my degree, I began to realize that, while I did really well as a designer, it brought out my anxiety. And I really loved costume technology. I loved the fine craft of it, and I liked the idea of a more stable profession. Costume designers still generally freelanced, and were always having to hustle for the next gig. But I was on the design track, so that’s the degree with which I graduated. Thankfully, my program emphasized a strong education in costume construction as well, so I was able to get an adequate amount of training for what I wanted to do.
And over the summers, I continued working at regional summer theatres.
I worked at a Shakespeare festival in Kentucky. I worked at a Shakespeare festival in Pennsylvania. I worked at a theatre along the lakeshore of West Michigan. I worked for the summer theatre at my grad school.
And then I finally got my foot in the door at one of the places I had been applying for years. Glimmerglass Opera (now Glimmerglass Festival) in Cooperstown, New York.
I accepted a position there as an intern, even though I was in grad school. I wanted to work there, no matter what it took. And I knew that if they were hiring grad students as interns, they were pretty legit! I knew that it was one of the top places to work in the summer in my line of work, so I was grateful for the chance.
The drive to Glimmerglass is gorgeous. It’s situated on Lake Otsego in Central New York, not too far from the Baseball Hall of Fame (the region’s main tourist attraction.) As I rounded a hill overlooking the lake on my first drive to the opera, I was stunned by the view. It already felt like home.
The whole campus is very unlike one’s traditional understanding of opera. It was designed to fit into the region’s general aesthetic, which means that it looks very much like a majestic, statuesque barn. The different departments work across the campus in various buildings, some of which are barns that are hundreds of years old.
It’s “Opera Camp.”
The costume shop is in the basement of an old barn, and is bright and open. It can get a bit cold at the beginning of the season, and hot in the later summer days, but the vibe in the shop is unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
I knew that I was in a good place when I learned that many of the people in the costume shop had been working there for 15 years, and they weren’t even 40 years old. They had grown up there, blossomed into seasoned professionals. It was a place of family and nurturing and camaraderie. It wasn’t cutthroat and competitive, and when other teams needed help, everyone jumped in, knowing that their aid would soon be repaid when they needed it.
I had found my theatre home.
They asked me back for my second season as a full-fledged stitcher that time. I began to develop a rapport with my teammates and other coworkers. Many of the same familiar faces returned year after year. They observed my growth as a technician as well as a young adult.
I went back for a third season, and a fourth…
When I met my now ex-wife Carmen, I made it perfectly clear that for two months every summer, I worked at Glimmerglass. That was what I did, and she was going to have to be okay with it. Because I value my autonomy, I did enjoy the bit of freedom that came with it, but, quite honestly, I loved my time at Glimmerglass more than anything else and I was not willing to give that up.
Carmen always commented on how I was happiest when I was away at Glimmerglass, and was a bit miffed about it. Okay, no, downright jealous. It wasn’t that I was happiest because I was away from her, I assured her. Glimmerglass was my happy place. It was my respite away from the crazy traffic in Chicago, a place that was relatively drama-free, unlike some of my other places of employment. It was when the weather was most beautiful, and my seasonal depression symptoms lessened. And many of my favorite people worked there too.
I still suffered with my depression over the summers, and often closed myself off, staying in my room during most of my free time. I still struggled to find my place, as I was beginning to find myself in a weird age bracket in which I was too old to still identify with the students, yet ten years younger than most of the others. And I felt obligated to give as much of my time to Carmen as I could to assure her that she was still loved and valued, as my cell and wifi signals could allow.
But, during the darkest years, Glimmerglass was where I felt like I was still the most like myself.
Last summer was my sixth season, and that time, I was to stay an extra month to serve as what was basically a “Junior Draper” position for a world premiere of a children’s opera. A three month contract, three months away from my new wife of only nine months.
And it was about a month into that contract in which Carmen stopped talking with me, completely out of the blue.
I didn’t know what was going on. And I felt utterly helpless to do anything about it. I was 750 miles away from her, and the only way I could know what was going on was by attempting to contact her friends.
I explained the situation to my supervisors, and they were so incredibly supportive. They told me that, if I needed to leave my contract early, they would figure out a way to make it work.
When I was finally able to talk with my wife, I told her that I could come home at once. We could start marital counseling and work on things in person, since she was obviously not interested in discussing things over the phone.
She told me that me coming home early wouldn’t change anything, and I might as well not miss out on that extra month of employment.
I didn’t know if I was going to be coming home to a wife or divorce papers.
“At this point, it sounds like it would be best if you just stay here with people who love and care about you, instead of going back to Chicago,” one of my supervisors (who I had begun to view as my Summer Mom) told me. And she was so right. I was exactly where I needed to be.
Thankfully, the season was beginning to get extremely busy, so I was able to throw myself into my work. I told the people who needed to know about my situation, and did my best to soldier on.
They were so unbelievably lovely, and an amazing support system for me. They saw me through my change in antidepressants, which is something that I had been terrified to do for years but was in dire need. There were a couple of times in which I needed to excuse myself to bawl briefly in the bathroom before I collected myself and continued on as usual. But everyone was so sympathetic and understanding. They told me that they were all impressed with how well I was handling it. And that made me feel powerful, and like I was going to be okay.
This past week, I began my seventh season at The Glimmerglass Festival. I was promoted to a Draper position on one of their mainstage productions, which is a huge honor. One of my coworkers told me that she thinks I may be the first person ever in their costume shop to follow the path all the way from intern to Draper, which I think is pretty cool.
I arrived back on campus, reflecting on who I was when I left it, nine months earlier. I had left it completely unsure of what I was headed home to.
And I came back completely transformed, a happy, strong, (and also 45 pounds thinner) woman.
I always knew that Glimmerglass had given me so much…a professional start, a nurturing work environment, a theatre family, a summertime refuge, a genuine appreciation of myself as an artist. But I never expected that it was going to be the incubator which prepared me to face my divorce with strength.
I am so incredibly honored to be a part of the Glimmerglass family, embraced and enfolded into its beautiful arms that are more home to me than perhaps anywhere else in this world.