Putting on a role
Milburn Stone costumer helps characters come to life
Special to the Whig
— While Lindsay Ellis may never appear in front of an audience, her creations put on a show almost every month at the Milburn Stone Theatre.
Ellis recently became the theater’s full-time costume shop manager. That means she designs, sews, selects and orders the various costumes that appear in the theater’s shows – which recently have ranged from classics like “West Side Story” to family shows like “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”
Although she briefly lived in Cecil County as a toddler, Ellis, now 31, was raised in Australia. It was while taking a sewing class in high school that she started thinking about costuming as a potential career.
“I really like this,” Ellis recalled thinking. “I think I can take this a little bit further.”
She got her foot in the door when an acquaintance connected her with a BBC production that needed interns. Although she can’t recall the name of the production now, she said that’s when she said she realized, “OK, I want to do this.”
After that, she took whatever art classes she could in high school, studied fashion for two years and theater costuming for four years, and put in some time behind the scenes with the Australian ballet.
Since she had dual citizenship, Ellis decided to return to the states in 2008 to try out the New York theater scene. She held an apprenticeship with Ensemble Studio Theatre and then Cirque du Soleil. That might sound glamorous, but since she was still learning Ellis was the one who came in at 7 a.m. to wash costumes. (Mostly on gentle cycle or hand washed, she said.)
Ellis returned to the area about two years to be with her family and started looking for local opportunities. She started with the Milburn Stone as a volunteer. In November, the theater hired her officially.
While costuming is her job, she personally dresses for comfort. Her job requires her to be active as she digs through the costume shop or creates a costume. Although she loves working in a theater, she said
Lindsay Ellis recently became the Milburn Stone Theatre’s full-time costume shop manager.
she prefers to be behind the scenes.
She prefers working on period shows, ones that allow her to get creative. The latest show, “Green Day’s American Idiot,” was somewhat a trip down memory lane for her as she figured out what outfits from the punk era – a period she grew up in – could appear onstage.
“It’s very ‘90s, very grunge and punk,” she said of the costumes in the show. “We have gone with a lot of studs and black and grays.”
She also has fun with the theater’s more imaginative pieces. She built the Donkey costume for the most recent production of “Shrek.” “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” also required creativity as she figured out how to make humans look like birds – or fish or merpeople.
“What they’re wearing is who they are,” she said.
Her next projects include the costumes for “A Few Good Men” (she has to special order uniforms and suits), “Mulan Jr.” (which will require a combination of special or-
ders and handbuilding) and “Cats.” Although the production of “Cats” is not until November, Ellis said she has already started thinking about costumes for the Broadway favorite.
“Those pieces are going to be very iconic as well,” she said.
Ellis’ costume budget depends on the show. For something like “American Idiot,” Ellis is able to make costumes from what is already in storage, and sometimes what cast members already own. She is also an active thrifter, visiting stores like Goodwill, Uniquely Odd and Plato’s Closet. For more uniform looks, she will shop Wal-Mart or Amazon.
Costuming starts with Ellis researching the actual animal or being the actor will portray. To create Scuttle’s look for “The Little Mermaid,” she searched gull images for inspiration. A photo of a gull flying against the sun with each feather detailed led her to create the final look – a white Oxford shirt with strips of fabric hanging from the arms painted with shades of black and grey to add dimension.
“I didn’t want it to look like a traditional bird,” she said of the character. And not every bird tap dances with a mermaid.
She will also meet with the actors to talk about how they see their character. It’s important that actors feel comfortable in what they are wearing because that can affect the performance, she said. In addition to meeting one-on-one with actors, she will also attend rehearsals, talk with the production staff and watch the show to see how it all comes together.
While there is often already an idea out there for what those characters should look like, Ellis said she still enjoys the challenge of making her own version. For Ursula in “The Little Mermaid,” she outfitted the actress with a classic black gown and then created a tentacle belt to strap on. That was made with dryer piping and pool noodles.
Her 3-year-old daughter, Lily, is as much of fan of the stage characters as other kids. She will come with Ellis to the occasional rehearsal and has her own costume dress-up box at home. Ellis said one of her favorite things to do is attend the meetand-greets cast members have with young audiences. In May, the theater held a princess party with “The Little Mermaid.”
“You see all the kids realize that’s actually the character,” she said. “To me, I’m just think I’m doing something I love.”
Costumer Lindsay Ellis dressed the cast of “Green Day’s American Idiot” in grunge and punk fashions found in thrift stores or the actors’ own closets
Costumes for “American Idiot” hang on display in the men’s dressing room at the Milburn Stone Theatre.