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The Magic Behind 80 Costume Changes in TheatreWorks Comedy “The 39 Steps”

The current TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of The 39 Steps by British playwright Patrick Barlow, which debuted in England in 2005, is billed as an uproarious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed 1935 spy movie of the same title.

Barlow rewrote Hitchcock’s tale of a British man who gets entangled with a spy organization called the 39 Steps for maximum laughs rather than maximum thrills.

And while Hitchcock’s thriller had a cast of 15 actors, Barlow’s comedy has four actors playing more than 100 roles. The actors change in and out of 40 or 50 costumes, making about 80 lightning-swift  — some as quick as 15 – 20-second — costume changes, assisted by three dressers.

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Costume Director Jill Bowers, a Sunnyvale resident, coordinates the creative and tactical crew that makes this all possible.

“I’m like a technical director for costumes,” said Bowers, who has been with TheatreWorks since 1986.

Cathleen Edwards is the freelance costume designer. The 39 Steps is the 17th TheatreWorks show she has designed costumes for.

The San Diego native, now living in San Francisco, started her research last April, perusing costume books and magazines. She noted the details marking the fashions of the 1930s, such as tricky bias cutting, skirt length and the number of pleats in men’s trousers.

Edwards finished her designs in May and started shopping for fabrics immediately. Because the comedy is set in England and Scotland, jackets, overcoats and capes are wool, adding to the heat of the lights on the actors.

“If I’m doing my job well, the costumes transport the audience to another time and place,” said Edwards, who has a BA in Theatrical Design from San Diego State University.

“The clothes help to create this world, and my job is to make sure the world is real. It’s a fantasy farce, but you have to believe this world while you’re in it.”

 

Technical Challenges

Constructing couture theater garments is technically challenging for the drapers, fabric cutters and stitchers. The garments must be made to fit a particular person, typically with only three weeks lead time and two or three fittings.

Also, the garments must be engineered to endure all the actions of the show. In one chase scene, the leading man and woman run through the moors of Scotland while handcuffed together.

“Teamwork is so essential for this show. It takes all of our talents,” said Bowers. “We have to be on top of our game for these technically challenging costumes.”

Clever construction is part of the magic.

“We have to engineer ways to get the actors from one costume to another,” said Bowers. “We use underdressing [putting one costume under another] and quick-rigged, special fastenings. We are using all our tricks — snaps, Velcro, magnets and magic.”

Bowers got her start in theatrical costuming in junior high school in her home state of Michigan, learning how to sew from her mom and classes. She earned a BA in Theatre Arts and Communication from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Theatrical Design from the University of Minnesota.

“I really enjoy having created a department that works as a team. We love what we do. It may be hard work, but it’s satisfying” said Bowers. “TheatreWorks is very collaborative top to bottom.”

 

Costume Costs

Costuming is labor intensive. Bowers manages a $25,000 costume budget — considered a medium budget — for The 39 Steps. To offset costs, TheatreWorks rents out costumes.

“We can’t afford to buy or make everything we need,” said Bowers. “We see what we have on hand that we could make work. So it’s important to keep our stock in good condition.”

With 30 performances of every TheatreWorks show, it’s a lot of work to keep clothes in good repair, clean and pressed.

“One of the things I really love about my job is working cooperatively with the actors to create their characters. It’s very synergetic. We help visualize the characters. We enhance what they’re doing, and they make our clothes look good,” said Bowers.

The 39 Steps was first produced by TheatreWorks in 2011. Directed by Leslie Martinson, it runs Aug. 21 – Sept. 15, with the possibility of extending the run, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Visit www.theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960 for show information and tickets. The award-winning, nonprofit theatrical company is in its 50th season.

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