Good Life

Stage presence: Penn State costume designer enjoys creating illusions with elaborate outfits, makeup

Like many this time of year, Suzie Elder was hard at work making a costume.

She pinned together blue broadcloth strips, the start of sleeves for a sailor’s jacket. Her fingers moved quickly but precisely. More was at stake than impressing neighbors on their doorsteps.

In less than two weeks, the jacket will transform an actor during a dress rehearsal of “Sweeney Todd.” Six days later, on Oct. 19, the Penn State production opens.

“There’s always deadlines,” said Elder, a School of Theatre associate professor who specializes in costume technology and design and stage make-up. “That’s kind of good — keeps us motivated. Just about when we’re sick of a show, it opens. We can move onto something new.”

For the time being, she and her colleagues in the school’s costume shop have their hands full stitching early Victorian costumes for an entire cast. Sewing machines clatter. Partial outfits adorn the torsos of dress forms, gradually taking shape piece by piece.

“You’re creating something,” said Patricia Armagast, the school’s costume supervisor. “I consider us artists in a way, because we’re creating something out of nothing.”

Elder, of Bellefonte, has devoted most of her life to the art of illusion. She has aged people, restored youth or turned them into monsters. From her stagecraft magic have come rogues and heroes, commoners and aristocrats, a census worth of characters spanning from factual to fantastic.

Before lights bathe the stage, she plays a key part in every show — the conjurer making figures come alive out of whole cloth.

“These audience members who come in are ready and willing to step out from their own environment and walk into the new environment of a play,” Elder said. “I think that’s the excitement and pride of our whole experience.”

A stitch in time

Elder is building a costume — this time with a body inside.

In a corner of the shop, she and Richard St. Clair, the school’s head of costume design, are conducting a fitting of a male “Sweeney Todd” actor.

As with all theatrical costumes, the outfit began as a watercolor rendering, probably with sample fabric swatches attached. Renderings serve as blueprints for costume designers, who also rely on historical research when working with directors to achieve desired appearances.

Playing an English gent from the 1830s, the “Sweeney Todd” actor wears a hybrid costume: pants recycled from another show; jacket made in house; high-ankle, leather boots donated by a Broadway musical after it closed. St. Clair tries out bow ties on the actor’s ruffly white shirt.

“Grow sideburns,” St. Clair says after suggesting the addition of facial hair. “That would give you more of a period look.”

Meanwhile, Elder circles the standing actor. Fittings are for making alterations — not just so that the final product fits better but also to help actors meet production demands, such as having to change quickly or move props between scenes.

Elder once designed a three-piece suit costume that zippered in the back, like a jumpsuit, for easy removal. On this afternoon, the demands for a background actor are more simple. She tugs here, shifts there, calling out modifications to a student logging them in the “show bible.” That’s the master binder with research notes and costume details for every character in a production.

“I think we need to move the suspender buttons up because the front waistband is popping down,” she says.

A few tweaks later, Elder is done. Stepping back, she surveys the new figure complete with a jaunty hat perched on his head.

“Look at you — very Dickensian,” she says.

Lifetime tapestry

St. Clair compares the shop’s creations to the world of fashion.

“What we do is the equivalent of couture work,” he said, using the term for custom-made clothing. “We’re making a one-of-a-kind garment for an individual client.”

But they don’t have glitzy budgets. This summer, St. Clair worked on a film in which actor Gary Oldman’s clothes budget totaled $20,000 — far more than the entire costume budget for Penn State shows.

“Here we have a limited amount of money and a limited amount of time, and we have to make it all happen in the time limit,” St. Clair said.

Elder accomplishes the task adeptly, said Armagast, a colleague for 15 years.

“She’s very professional,” Armagast said. “She doesn’t do things half-measure. When she takes on projects, she goes full out.”

Elder’s love for the stage goes back to her childhood in the Baltimore suburbs.

She frequently went into the city for plays. At home, she learned to make her own outfits.

“Back in the day, if you were in a middle-class family and wanted to be fashionable, you had to know how to sew,” she said.

Her interests merged in high school, where she designed scenery in the drama club, and in college. At Virginia Commonwealth University, she gravitated to the costume shop during her freshman year.

“I kind of felt that the avenue of my artistry was through fabric,” she said.

In 1974, two years after graduating, she earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Texas. From there, her academic career took her to theater schools at Illinois State, Wisconsin and Beaver College before she arrived at Penn State 15 years ago.

Professionally, she has designed and made costumes for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival and the McMarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where she served as the costume shop manager for seven years. Her credits include productions in Connecticut, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Three marquee shows stand out in her extensive resume.

As a cutter and draper, she worked on the 1996 Nickolodeon production of “A Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The next year, she saw her handiwork open on Broadway. Walt Disney Theatrical Productions hired her for the premiere of “The Lion King.” Using African-made fabrics, she designed base costumes for 28 chorus members.

Over the course of 18 months, she went from a 35-minute commute from New Jersey to four-hour trips from State College. In the end, a special performance rewarded the extra effort.

“The neatest thing was, because the journey had taken so long, all the cast and company along with their friends were invited to see the dress rehearsal,” said Elder, who brought her two young sons.

But for sheer novelty, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1991 couldn’t be beat.

“That was such a blast,” she said.

Elder costumed float personnel in the Macy’s store in Newark, N.J., where everyone traditionally prepares before taking buses into Manhattan for the parade.

“It’s mostly done by numbers,” she said. “You’ve got 25 Christmas trees in this float. You’ve got 30 ice skaters in this float.”

Parade costume designers only have about 2 1/2 hours until the buses leave. Afterward, participants return to the Newark store to return their outfits and celebrate.

“I think we had one lost gnome, that was it, who didn’t get back to Newark,” she said. “That was OK.”

Since moving to Centre County, she occasionally applies her talents to community work. While her sons were at Bellefonte Area High School, she designed the annual drum major costume. One year Zorro inspired her; another featured a James Bond theme, white tuxedo and all.

Each time she succeeded despite a limited palette of black, red, white and silver, the school’s colors.

“It was very challenging,” she said. “The greatest reward is the kids are so proud when you’re able to do something really unique for them.”

That fell by the wayside with her sons’ graduation, but she still has an annual December gig: designing costumes at First Presbyterian Church in Bellefonte, where her husband, Doug, is the pastor.

“We have the best-dressed Christmas pageant, you can imagine,” she said.

Physical transformation

In a basement dressing room, Elder is helping her students look their best.

It’s her stage make-up class, and the day’s assignment is corrective techniques. Before mirrors illuminated by hot, white bulbs, the students apply blush, liner and powder to their faces, following plans they filled out beforehand.

They had already learned how to age themselves. Now they were seeking perfection.

“Most of the make-up we’re creating for stage, so it’s viewed from a distance,” Elder says. “This assignment is more for a resume shot or for the eye of the camera, so it’s much more subtle than what we’re normally doing.”

She gives the students advice before taking their photo for a critique as they stand under a stage light. “Extend it, kind of Cleopatra-esque, a little bit,” she tells one woman about her eye shadow.

Elder formed the class for musical theater students as an elective because their curriculum doesn’t include it.

“That’s Suzie being Suzie,” St. Clair said. “She took it upon herself to do that.”

The class teaches students how to use facial contours to create light and dark contrasts.

“That’s the real tool to change and manipulate your features, so that’s what we’re trying to give the students knowledge of,” she said. “Because down the road, they’ll be doing character makeup, and they will want to make themselves look stout or mean or whatever.”

Transformation is the nature of her profession. So is change, as one show shifts to another. But there is permanence. It rests on hangers in the school’s cavernous costume collection — what the result probably would be if you took a dry-cleaning store through history in a time machine.

Bins on shelves from floor to ceiling contain every kind of hat, tie, shoes and accessory imaginable. One, for example, holds sombreros; another Peter Pan “lost boy” hats. Fabric scraps and bolts of every texture and pattern line other walls.

Along racks stacked three to a row hang a dizzying array of attire from throughout the ages. One eclectic section bears the label: 1600s men’s wear, monks, academia, ecclesiastical, KKK and women’s capes.

“You name it and we probably have it,” Elder said.

The collection is so extensive, every year as Halloween draws close, the school tightens security around the storage room. Otherwise, belts and other items tend to vanish. It also receives calls from desperate students and parents. Have anything for a Mario costume? What about a wizard?

The answer is always no.

“We’re not a novelty or commercial rental business,” Elder said, adding that the school does rent items to other theaters or for local scholastic productions.

She’s not about to see the fruits of her labors wind up at a frat party — not when she takes such pride in stitching them.

“You can say you made that vest for that character,” she said. “It’s exciting.”