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Local costumer in her element during Halloween

Local costumer Julie Snyder measures State High Thespian member Justin Shondeck for a costume for a production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
Local costumer Julie Snyder measures State High Thespian member Justin Shondeck for a costume for a production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Photo provided

Julie Snyder wasn’t frightened by the prospect of making this year’s Halloween costumes for her children.

For her, it was a snap — or a button, maybe a clasp. A cowboy outfit? Rustle up a hat and stitch together a vest and chaps, pronto. A dragon? Make a tail and hood to scale.

Compared to outfitting an entire cast, dressing up little tykes is, well, child’s play.

It’s all a pleasure, even when it’s business, for the Stormstown resident. As a professional costumer, she loves creating outfits for local plays and musicals. In turn, they love giving her the opportunity.

Since her start about a decade ago, her sartorial skills have been in constant demand. To date, her credits extend beyond 50 shows for State College Community Theatre, FUSE Productions, State High Thespians and other troupes.

Wherever she’s responsible for transforming actors into characters, she’s in her element solving another challenge.

“I think that’s why I like sewing in general,” she said. “It’s just that I love getting into it, figuring something out. I love jigsaw puzzles. A lot of times I see sewing as a puzzle I need to figure out how to make it work. I need to figure out how to put clothing on 40 bodies and make them look all right.”

These days, Snyder is juggling the demands of two school shows. She considers this a lighter workload. Last year after a spring show, she costumed several consecutive shows during the Nittany Theatre at the Barn’s inaugural summer season — the equivalent of working three productions simultaneously.

The pace began taking a toll. Her life started fraying like an old hemline. With four children younger than 10, she needed more time for her family, and she cut back this year, albeit reluctantly.

Even so, she’s once again immersed in familiar routines: researching, measuring, designing, sewing, altering — all the tasks introduced to her by chance 11 years ago.

Her husband, Will Snyder, was making projection sketches for a local production of the musical “Oliver!” when the show’s costumer had to drop out. The director asked Snyder if he knew of a replacement.

As a matter of fact, he did.

His wife had learned to sew in high school, her first effort a pillow as a class project. From there, she made the leap to a Renaissance fair costume, simply because she wanted to go to the event. Eventually, she even sewed two Victorian-themed outfits for her wedding.

Sewing, however, remained a hobby while she performed in plays as a Penn State student. Then the surprise request brought her two passions together, and she was intrigued.

“I think it was the creative process,” she recalled. “I had never really come across anything like that before, where it’s kind of marrying a technical skill, sewing, with something that’s creative.”

Over time, she has developed a tried-and-true approach. She first reads the script to get a feel for the show, its time period and the characters’ social statuses. Next, she refines ideas with the director and coordinates colors and other details with the set designer.

After that, it’s on to research, never a chore. She’s fascinated by how styles, particularly those of the early 20th century, evolved in reflection of social changes.

“That’s what makes it so fun,” she said. “I love to learn. Maybe I should have been a historian.”

She certainly enjoys doing her homework. Consulting her reference books and the internet, visiting the Penn State libraries and costume shops and even checking out distant theaters’ wardrobe “stashes,” she looks for inspiring patterns and checks the accuracy of her designs. The silhouettes, or cuts, of jackets and other clothes must be correct for the period. So do fabric choices.

“You don’t want to put polyester in Dickensian London,” she said.

From her stocks — hats, scarves, shoes, fabrics and “notions” such as buttons, ribbons and hooks — she assembles outfits in her home sewing room and backstage at theaters. A fan of antique shops and thrift stores, she also is grateful for a grandmother who provides a steady supply of material from auctions.

Regardless of the era or genre, Snyder keeps in mind an important consideration when designing. Whatever she crafts will be thrown on and doffed quickly between scenes, so snaps, Velcro strips and other anachronisms are often necessary.

It’s theater, after all, the art of illusion.

“It doesn’t have to be exactly perfect because a theatrical audience is so far from the stage,” she said. “There might be a zipper in that dress, even though they didn’t use zippers in dresses, but nobody is going to see it.”

Her work includes keeping audiences from glimpsing more startling views. Many times off stage she has hastily sewn on buttons or stitched together split pants, all to avoid memorable scenes the playwright never imagined.

Being a costumer can entail both long hours and frantic minutes, but of all the moments, two always stand out for her.

She relishes when an actor, in full attire for the first time, exults in feeling dashing or beautiful — much the same reward as hearing her children appreciate her Halloween handiwork.

Then there’s the first dress rehearsal when everyone is in character, on stage together, and she knows it’s going to work. She may have bugs to iron out, but the show will go on.

She has a dream, maybe for when her children are older or grown, about witnessing those moments elsewhere. In her mind’s eye, she’s studying costuming in graduate school and pursuing it somewhere glamorous. Why not? She spends enough time creating fantasy for others that she deserves a little for herself.

“I could whisk off to the south of France and costume an opera there or something,” she said, laughing. “I wouldn’t cry about that.”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

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