Spread Your Tiny Wings and Fly Away

Sailors and Billis in “South Pacific”

Several years ago, SOMEONE came into my costume shop where my crew and I were making costumes as fast as we could, and breathlessly told me they had just interviewed a person who could sew you anything you wanted as long as you showed her a picture. I looked around my shop to make sure my crew and I actually existed. We seemed to be existing, so I said, “SOMEONE, what do you think I do all day?”

I wanted to be a lot of different things when I grew up. When I was 5 I wanted to grow up and marry Tom Jones.

I mean, I wasn’t alone in that wish. 

A year or so later, I wanted to grow up and serve on the USS Enterprise with dashing Captain Kirk, supersmart Mr. Spock, and irascible Dr. McCoy. 

In 1st and second grade I wanted to move to the island of Chincoteague and raise wild ponies. 

In 3rd grade I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder and wanted to be a pioneer girl, traveling across the prairie in a covered wagon.

In 4th grade I decided to become a flautist. Alas, no matter how hard I tried, I could barely get the flute to make even the tiniest of squeaks. I would blow until I was literally red in the face and then Larry would tease me about my red face and disheveled hair. He’d take the flute and blow across the lip plate, making the instrument hoot. I can’t bear to be mocked, so I quit the flute.

Joyce and Larry wanted me to become an artist. They saw some latent talent in me, or thought they did, and sent me to private art lessons where I learned to draw cans: 

And cubes:

And houses:

They had hopes that I would become a greeting card artist. Yeah, weird, huh?

Meanwhile, I started drawing silhouettes of ladies who looked like this:

Joyce and Larry thought these drawings were hysterical and gave me no end of grief about my lady’s proportions. So I quit drawing and set my sights on becoming a ballerina. Joyce enrolled me in ballet classes. I seemed to be pretty good at it, earning solos and leading the ensemble numbers. I even graduated to pointe work–which is a big deal for a ballerina. Dancing en pointe hurts like hell. My toes were always bruised and I felt like my toenail was being shoved back up into my big toe, no matter how short I cut it. I began to rethink my choice of careers.

Perhaps I could be a dancer, without dancing en pointe? Like, I could dance for variety shows or become a Rockette or a Solid Gold Dancer, or dance in the ensemble in Broadway musicals. But before I could make that choice, Joyce and Larry divorced, we moved to Florida, and I never took dance lessons again until I learned to swing dance in my 30s.

The Solid Gold Dancers

In Florida, I decided I wanted to become a singer. I wanted to sing easy-listening pop songs like Helen Reddy, Karen Carpenter, and Ann Murray. I joined all the choir classes I could, but I couldn’t read music. The choir teacher told me I was too old to learn to read music, but I really just think she didn’t want to be bothered with a remedial student. She gave the best pieces and all of her attention to students who could already sing and read music. I was convinced I couldn’t sing at all until I attended university and signed up for voice lessons. I had two wonderful, supportive vocal instructors who told me I can sing; I have a lovely voice, decent range and good instincts. I needed to learn breath control and how to read music. (Thank you, Kari and DeVera! I adore you both!) But that was later.

I tried being a stay at home mother for a few years, but babies and toddlers are not scintillating conversationalists. I was bored to tears. I got zero personal satisfaction from a clean house, dinner on the table, and soap-smelling babies tucked into their beds. I needed to be stimulated and challenged.

I decided to become an actress. My first acting coach was an amazing and infuriating woman named Sandi. She had many talented students and I was lucky to have a chance to learn from her. She tried to teach me to tap dance and I tried to learn, but I couldn’t manage the balances. But Sandi gave me so many wonderful opportunities and I will love her forever. Someone in our town was making a movie and needed a local dramatic actress and my name came up. The producer came and saw my work and offered me the part. But he’d assumed as a North Dakotan I could ride a horse, and not just amble along, but ride at full gallop. I sadly informed him I could not. My dreams of Hollywood and Broadway were dashed for lack of horse riding skills.

By that time, I was a single mother working at a fabric store, struggling to make ends meet. I realized I needed to get a ‘real’ job and that would require a degree. I entered university with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist/therapist. I quickly realized a few things. It seemed both the psych students and the psych instructors had all chosen the field to deal with their own traumas. The classes were full of over-sharing and tears and snap diagnoses. I found that I am very empathetic, to the point of having bad days and bad dreams from things that were shared in class. I wondered how professionals shook off all this hurt. 

A student in one of my classes ‘diagnosed’ a woman who had killed her young boys as “trash” and I decided I couldn’t deal with broken psyches for the rest of my life. BUT. There are other ways of helping people, if that’s what I really wanted to do. I would become … a LAWYER.

My Criminal Justice advisor loved me. He would come outside and smoke with me and continue lessons as we smoked. He had my path to law school planned out and was willing to help me find ways to pay for it. In North Dakota, all the Criminal Justice majors are gun nuts with authoritarian leanings; pro-death penalty and more concerned with revenge than justice. I dreaded going to class and finally just changed my major.

This time I was absolutely certain and would NOT be deterred. I was going to be… an ACTRESS. Again. A professional actor came to speak to our department about working in the profession and he said, “We do theatre because we MUST. It’s in our blood, like an addiction. We do theatre because to not do theatre is our soul’s death.” This is how I have always felt about theatre. Let’s face it, most working actors aren’t major stars. Most designers aren’t household names. You do theatre because you must. Otherwise it’s not worth it.

Back to acting. But the same SOMEONE who was so excited to find someone (besides me) who could sew anything with or without a pattern told me that she thought:

a) I was one of the best, if not THE best actresses in our department, 

BUT 

b)  I was too short to play a dramatic lead.

I kept auditioning but SOMEONE wasn’t the only peson who told me I was too short to act. I can color and cut my hair. I can gain or lose weight. I can learn to ride a horse or do stage combat. I can do oh so many things to hone my craft. But I cannot grow. It was breaking my heart every time I was told how great my audition was, how my choices were bold and intuitive, but I was too short for the role. 

Kristin Chenoweth is 4’11’, just one inch taller than me.

I decided to become a costume designer. I have been sewing most of my life–my first sewing project was a costume! I could still be in theatre; I could even apply my psychology lessons. This was it. I was on my way.

SOMEONE told me I was doing my renderings incorrectly. My drawings looked like this:

But she made me outline them so they looked like this:

The professional designers who critiqued my drawings said the heavy outlines made them look like coloring book drawings and that wasn’t cool.

SOMEONE told me she had an idea that would help me do my job: I should create a ‘literal binder’ with all the information for the show in it so I could stay organized. Hey, SOMEONE: it’s ‘literally’ called a ‘show bible’ and all theatre technicians make one for every single show they do. Go away, kid, you bug me.

I went to the art department and recruited a professor to teach me how to draw. He was a graphic artist specializing in automobile art. But he wanted to learn theatrical rendering as much as I did, so he took me on. (Thanks Bill–I hear you still rock!) I went to grad school to get my costume degree and realized I wanted to teach people like me, people who didn’t have a teacher and were stumbling around on their own. Linda pushed me hard and taught me everything she knew, even when I would stubbornly insist on doing things my way. (Love you so much, Linda!) I became an educational theatre professor. A Costume Designer (Master of Fine Arts), specializing in period designs and fashion history. I was doing what I loved. 

Remember this?  

She became this: 

It’s like I knew waaaayyyyy back then what I was supposed to be but kept distracting myself.

My mother-in-law assures me what I do isn’t art. She’s literally a Karen.

My colleagues get tenure while I’m told customers don’t get tenured. We have the same degree. I work just as hard. But I’m female.

Ginny Jenny in “Threepenny Opera”

Joyce wants me to work at McDonalds.

Joyce wants me to work at a Mini Mart.

But I am a Theatre Costume Designer. And I’m damn good at my job.

Truewit in “Epicœne, or The Silent Woman”

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