Sustainability Extends to Costuming

Russell, with student Regan McKay
Russell, with student Regan McKay

The upcoming production of Scrooge, like most Northern Michigan University shows in recent years, will feature costumes made from repurposed fabric and other items. Apron pockets are cut from a holiday blanket. Petticoats are made from a wedding dress. Collar and cuff trim once graced pillows and bedspreads. In an effort to be more sustainable and cost-conscious, Professor Shelley Russell has adopted a “do more with less” approach to costume design.

With each show, Russell incorporates a new technique that students might not have been exposed to elsewhere. For The Addams Family musical in April, she and her crew will give fabric a gilded appearance with metallic paint. The tech lesson on She Kills Monsters was substructures, or repurposing odd materials. For Secret Garden, Russell taught her staff to create a rich, layered design with a minimal palette and to repurpose curtains for period costumes (Scarlett O’Hara would be proud). The Into the Woods crew learned how to recycle fabric scraps using patchwork and quilting.

“We have racks of costumes from previous shows and boxes of donated fabric, contemporary clothing and miscellaneous items,” Russell said. “The challenge is figuring out how to give them a new and different life. It’s problem-solving that goes with the territory of creating theater. Everyone involved in each production has to solve issues of how you create a particular world in a particular time. We reuse both set and costume pieces. My goal is to create an all-recycled season next year in the costume shop. I’m not sure how, but trying to be economical and environmental forces us to come up with creative ideas.”

Russell’s approach is indicative of a broader trend. For example, the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) is an industry-wide initiative that educates and motivates the theater community and its patrons to adopt environmentally friendlier practices.

The Tony Award-winning set designer for Broadway’s Peter and the Starcatcher is active in the BGA and created the set almost entirely from salvaged materials. According to the production website, the producers invited venues on the national tour route to contribute items to build the tour proscenium. Donations included wine corks, children’s toy figures, old cooking tools and silverware.

The costuming work on Scrooge is complete, aside from potential last-minute alterations or repairs. The racks are filled with apparel for the large cast of nearly 60 campus and community members.

“Too often people say it’s just a seasonal show, so we should pull everything back out of the closet and make minor adjustments,” Russell said. “That’s not right. To call it a Forest Roberts Theatre production and make it a teaching experience for students, we need to have artistic goals. Our staff is strong and I don’t want them to feel it’s okay to basically pull whatever fits the 60 people on stage. I understand when people need to do that, but we have the luxury of putting more thought into the production process.”

Showtimes for Scrooge are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, through Saturday, Dec. 17, with an additional 1 p.m. Saturday matinee.

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director