Old Town Playhouse is opening its newest show today, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The period comedy is set in the 1800s and is about a man living a double life and the humorous obstacles that come with his elaborate lie. Old Town Playhouse is known in the community for putting on well-executed shows, and there’s a reason for that reputation. Volunteers dedicate their time and care to making sure each show is going to be an enjoyable experience for the community. Kathleen Verstraete volunteers upwards of 40 hours a week as the costumer for Old Town Playhouse, and period pieces happen to be her favorite kind of show to costume.
Kathy has been costuming at Old Town Playhouse for 30 years, has costumed over 200 shows and is the current costume chairman. She fell in love with making costumes at the age of 12 when she took a sewing class. She first put her love and skill to the test in high school when she began assisting in costuming the theatrical productions.
“When I got in high school I wanted to get involved in something and I liked theatre and I don’t act, never have never will, so I went down to the costume department and kind of have stayed there.”
She eventually went to college for design of textiles and marketing, fashion and business. She’s worked all over the map in clothing, working as a buyer and in retail fashion stores, but now she strictly freelances. Kathleen is finishing up costumes for The Importance of Being Earnest as well as working on fittings for West High School choir students, and costuming a film in Houghton Lake.
“I’m running back and forth a lot. I’m used to burning the candle at both ends and one or two places in the middle. ”
Costuming a show doesn’t typically consist of making every outfit. Costumers sometimes borrow pieces from other companies, and curate outfits from thrift and consignment shops. Costuming a period piece from the 1890s doesn’t leave much room for thrifting, so most of the pieces in The Importance of Being Earnest were made by Kathleen and her costuming volunteers. Victorian fashion is very detailed and fabric heavy, but Kathleen was up for the challenge.
“I love building and sewing historic. The bigger the show is the less I get to sew, there’s so many other things to do in designing a show. I like the sewing. I like the creative process, and I enjoy working with the actors.”
1890s Victorian fashion consisted of a lot of high necks, large sleeves, fitted waistlines, hats, formal gloves and large skirts. Because dresses were worn with corsets some of the actresses are wearing corsets for the show. The main male characters in the show wear elaborate suits made of patterned fabric.
All of the dresses are made from scratch, and almost all of the dresses were made for The Importance of Being Earnest, except for one dress that Kathleen made for the same show 20 years ago.
“Sarah [Wolf’s] first outfit is actually being used, in pieces, from the first show. I’m using it in a slightly different configuration this time.”
As a freelance costumer, Kathleen has a jam-packed schedule. Costuming for Old Town Playhouse is a labor of love, but a labor well worth it. She enjoys not only designing and making clothes, but also the friendships she makes. Putting together a theatrical production is truly a group effort. Cast and crew grow close through countless hours spent together in play rehearsals.
“At this point they’re my kids,” Kathy said smiling. “I love coming to work. We’re family here.”
I have enjoyed being in theatrical productions, and one of my favorite places to be before rehearsal was the costume shop. It was cozily packed with boxes of sparkly tulle and heavy velvet, costumes ranging from a queens cloak to dresses suited for a 1960s housewife, and sprinklings of pins, shears and measuring tape covered every surface. Kathleen’s shop is no different. She was even finishing up a dress hem by hand when I dropped in on her.
Kathleen is always open to having more volunteers in the costume shop, whether they know how to sew or not. She has trained volunteers on how to sew and always has a way that they can contribute to help put a costume together.
“Most of us who work here are volunteers, I don’t think most people know that. I love what I do. We are constantly looking for people that enjoy sewing, that wanna get into this field.”
The Importance of Being Earnest opens at the Old Town Playhouse tonight at 7:30. Tickets are available at the box office and online.