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The Scarlet & Black

Behind the Scenes: The costume shop


By Zoe Fruchter

In the basement of the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, within a maze of whitewashed hallways, lies the Grinnell College Costume Studio. This hidden on-campus gem  gets students fitted for various theater and dance productions. It features shelves of multi-colored fabrics, notions and threads and is organized by the steady hand of Costume Studio Supervisor and Resident Costume Designer Erin Howell-Gritsch. As studio supervisor, Howell-Gritsch manages the volumes of fabric and clothing needed to produce each season of shows at the College. Her tasks include ordering supplies, maintaining equipment, organizing the costume spaces — two storage rooms, the studio, makeup room and three dressing rooms — and supervising student staff.

In her role as resident costume designer, Howell-Gritsch designs costumes for all of the mainstage productions and assists with student MAPs and class projects.

“I read the play several times, do any necessary research and render (draw) any costumes that I will build,” wrote Howell-Gritsch in an email to The S&B. “I usually don’t render contemporary shows as I might want a men’s blue suit, for instance, and it really isn’t necessary [to render] in order to communicate with the rest of the team. I choose all fabrics, trims, notions, etc. and decide what each character/performer will wear. I do all of the shopping and sourcing of rentals.”

The process of putting on a mainstage production is intensely collaborative.

“I work with the other designers and the director to make sure the show has a cohesive look and all of us are working toward the same goal,” Howell-Gritsch wrote. “We have weekly production meetings to discuss any changes, progress, problems. I work closely with the stage manager to schedule fittings for each performer.”

Jamie Friedman ’20 began working at the costume shop after performing in theater and dance shows. She noted that she saw an entirely different side of productions working from behind the scenes.

“It’s interesting to see how all the different parts of the theater department work together to make a show, and how many people are involved.  The costumes department has to be very aware of how the stage will be set up, what the lighting will be, how long each actor has to change between scenes, and a bunch of other details,” Friedman wrote in an email to The S&B.

Yet even with such a collaborative process, Howell-Gritsch, who is employed only part time by the College, is often overloaded come performance season.

“It is very difficult to fit everything in. I need to be really organized and have my days planned out for the most part. I do most of the shopping on my own time,” Howell-Gritsch wrote.  “The busiest time in the shop is usually when we are just a few weeks out from performance, because of the fittings. … If I am building many of the costumes, every week is busy just trying to get them done. I like to think of myself as a master multitasker.”

Howell-Gritsch’s mastery of multi-tasking comes from years of experience. She holds an MFA in theater design from the University of Iowa, a degree she decided to pursue after falling in love with costume designing while working for Ballet Iowa right out of college. It was at Ballet Iowa that she worked with Erik Sanning, Grinnell College’s technical director, who recommended she come to Grinnell in April of 1999 as a guest designer.

Friedman spoke to Howell-Gritsch’s width of experience and knowledge.

“Erin also really gets to know everyone who works for her and cares about our lives and opinions. She’s been working at Grinnell for almost 20 years so she has a lot of knowledge on not just costumes, but the whole department,” Friedman wrote.

Theater and dance productions are only made possible with the behind-the-scenes support of the costume shop. Photo by Reina Shahi.
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