A costume ball

Designers Sarah Roy and Leesa Hamilton dress up the local theatre scene.

In a short time, NSCAD University's new fashion department has established itself as a creative, eco-conscious style force, producing some talented emerging designers. But now, that sunny upstairs studio in Granville Mall is becoming a production site and a starting point for local theatre costume design, too.

Last year grad Akshay Tyagi, whose stage-minded dresses and coats are now on sale at Biscuit General Store and Seeds Gallery, produced performance gowns for the women's choir Camerata Xara. Louanna Murphy---her first collection at Biscuit is nearly sold out---graduated from Dalhousie's costume department before heading to NSCAD. Must be in the genes: Murphy's grandmother worked in the costume department at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. And then there's Sarah Roy, in her third year designing costumes for Shakespeare by the Sea.

Roy graduated from NSCAD in 2009 with a degree in fine art and a minor in fashion. She got the job in a typical Halifax manner: She heard that the outdoor theatre company was looking for a costume designer through a friend of a friend. Roy's tried her hand in the fashion industry---she did a four-month internship with Anna Gilkerson's deux fm----but is hooked on theatre. "I like the idea of producing costumes over a collection."

In many ways costume designing is more about problem solving on a tight budget. Salvation Army and Value Village are your best friends. On this hot day, Roy has just returned from Fabricville and Piercey's for wood and supplies to make a puppet, with some help from Mermaid Theatre experts. She is making clothing for three shows (Treasure Island, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar) and 12 cast members, which equals about 60 costumes for the season.

"They're sourced, altered and also from scratch," Roy says.

Much of what Roy does involves research. Twelfth Night is set in 1910 Halifax, the year of the navy's centennial, which meant spending time in the dockyards with experts from the Maritime Museum to find uniforms. However, body types have morphed over the years, so she's picked up other skills like millinery to make hats sized for modern heads.

Suitability, accuracy and believability are important, but outdoor theatre provides its own set of clothing challenges as well, especially, Roy explains, "dealing with heat." In turning military trench coats into 15th-century frock coats, she had to pull out the lining so actors wouldn't sweat too much or overheat.

Leesa Hamilton is also familiar with the challenges of costume designing. Years after coordinating art programs for at-risk youth in Toronto, Hamilton went back to school, first at George Brown and then Dalhousie for costume design and garment construction. She's been working steadily since, working on costumes for Toronto musicals like Sound of Music, Dirty Dancing and We Will Rock You.

Now back in Halifax, Hamilton's dressed some of the city's best productions, including Zuppa Theatre's Penny Dreadful and Poor Boy, and 2b theatre's East of Berlin, for which she was nominated for a Merritt Award.

Now, she's going back in time, to the late 17th century Massachusetts witch trials. Hamilton is designing costumes for Two Planks and a Passion's The Crucible, also an outdoor show at Ross Creek in Canning. There are 19 actors, who will be wearing clothing, "mostly built from scratch," says Hamilton. Where Roy works out of Point Pleasant Park---sometimes under the trees, sometimes "the cast pops in and sews buttons," Hamilton had a hard time finding an appropriate space in Halifax to create an all-original wardrobe. "It's the biggest show they've ever done, the biggest I've ever worked on...the one thing I knew going into this was that we needed a really good working studio space," she says. "It was the only way it would be efficient and healthy---it's hard on people's bodies."

Hamilton approached NSCAD fashion department head Gary Markle for a rental, which led to Hamilton becoming an artist-in-residence. Now she works out of the spacious studio assisted by NSCAD students Derrick Dixon and Sarah Curtis, and Dal grad Meredith Wilson. As you walk into the studio, hand-drawn illustrations of the costumes---modestly styled and coloured shirts, aprons, hats, long skirts and pants---line the wall beside a rack of completed costumes.

"It's an easy one to learn from," says Hamilton, "because of the era, all of the cuts are very similar, you can repeat patterns. Once you get the gist of one, you can start working independently."

Obviously it's tough making a living as a full-time theatre costume designer in Halifax. Neptune Theatre hires for short contracts, but not on a full-time basis. So employment must be found elsewhere.

Roy finds work on short films, including Joel Mackenzie's Super Science and several AFCOOP projects. She also did the costumes for Classified's "Oh Canada," including the moustachioed Heritage Minute spoof.

Hamilton teaches at NSCAD and Dalhousie, and Roy will start as a teaching assistant at Dalhousie in the fall.

But Hamilton is optimistic that creative partnerships, like this summer residency with NSCAD, will open up new opportunities for those who want to stick it out and dress up local theatre productions.

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