In The Round: April 2020

  • Joseph P. Salasovich Reflects on the Costume Department at Arena Stage

    "The true beauty of the costume shop is not the room itself.  
    The true beauty of the costume shop is the people working within it.”

    — Joseph P. Salasovich 

    Written by Joseph P. Salasovich 

    When the Mead Center for American Theater opened, people immediately marveled at the architecture.  Arena Stage was reborn.  Again.  Through its storied history Arena has performed in multiple venues.  From a brewery to the building at 6th and Maine, to temporary spaces in Crystal City and Lincoln Theater, Arena Stage has performed in many parts of Washington, D.C. and even Arlington, Virginia.  Arena has been connecting people years before John F. Kennedy would even be president of the United States.  In 2010 the Mead Center exploded in the Southwest DC neighborhood.  Ten years later, the neighborhood has grown in epic proportions.  In 2010 when it opened, people were curious to see this iteration of  Arena Stage at the Mead Center and they spilled into the newly dedicated building in droves for tours.  I was one of the staff there to meet them.  
    When the Costume Shop at Arena Stage welcomes guests, I do my best to let them enter this room and take it in.  Part fitting space, part storage space, part atelier, and part office, this space inspires visitors for some reason.  Perhaps it is the promise of creativity in all of the sketches, the textiles, the dress forms, and the sewing machines that inspire the folks who enter.  People comment on the room with its beautiful windows and natural light.  They marvel at the gowns on the mannequins.  They notice all of the boxes of accessories and the jewelry hanging on the walls.  They are full of questions about all of the things.  Before they even have a chance to ask a single question, I ask visitors to view the room from a different perspective and I share the true beauty of the Costume Shop at the Mead Center.  
    The true beauty of the costume shop is not the room itself.  
    The true beauty of the costume shop is the people working within it.  
    I ask visitors to not look at the shop as a room, but to look at the shop as the people who activate it.  
    One thing is certain, my colleagues sure know how to activate that room.  You have probably seen their work onstage.  When I see their work onstage it’s impossible not to see them—the people who made and maintain those garments and accessories.  They are masters.
    Regional theater is special because those masters make theater in our own cities for our own audiences.  Sure, sometimes those shows move on to other parts of the country (think Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, or even The Originalist) but for the most part we aim to make and present those shows locally.  It's as close to "farm to table" that theater can get.  That means there are multiple artisans who are employed at Arena Stage to help make that theater in our own city.
    All of a sudden, the magic of the Mead Center for American Theater starts to make sense.  We are all artisans under one roof.  Yes, that is one magnificent roof, an architectural marvel, but its power shelters something even more magnificent:  the accomplished and tenured staff at Arena Stage.  Every employee at Arena Stage, whether in administration, communications, front of house, production, or community engagement works tirelessly to bring stories to life that move and grow through our community.  It's for us.  
    There has never been a more pressing time to consider us.
    Working in the arts means not being afraid of emotions.  I've learned that the hard way over the years.  In a year fraught with change, uncertainty, and emotion, I've been thinking about crying a lot.  The idea of catharsis taught by Aristotle has a component of humanizing tragedy.  These days we contemplate humanity every day. 
    Tears are certain and necessary, though it’s not easy to see anyone cry.   To be honest, the last time I cried at work was watching the cast of Newsies tap dance at the top of Act II.  My family was in the audience and I stood in the back of the Fichandler as I have done for multiple shows.  By that point I had seen this production many times , but I couldn’t resist another opportunity to see the cast perform King of New York.   As I watched this epic number with such a prodigious solo performance by Luke Spring, I was moved to tears.  Luke’s tap performance was unlike anything I have seen and I just started tearing up.  At exactly that moment, Luke tapped the tap right off of his shoe. My tears stopped as instinct took me backstage to see him and Alice Hawfield, Arena’s wardrobe supervisor, as he exited the stage with his toe tap in hand.  Imagine their surprise when I showed up.  Luke asked how I could know to be there at that moment.  
    The truth was--I simply didn't know. 
    I did know this repair was beyond a simple fix.  The screw holes for the toe tap were all stripped and no long screw in the sole buildup or broken wooden match stick (an old tap shoe quick repair trick) would do.  The repair was beyond my experience.  I called my colleague, master cobbler Don Roderigo Restrepo at Old Town Shoe and Luggage Repair, and asked if he could help with an emergency repair.    He answered my call and helped us that evening by replacing the entire buildup on the sole of the shoe to be able to replace Luke’s toe tap.  Major shoe reconstruction wasn’t exactly what either of us had planned on a Saturday night, but Luke’s performance brought so much joy to so many people I understood it as an imperative.  Don Roderigo has never turned me away.  There have been mornings when I have shown up at his doorstep at 6:00 am with a laundry basket full of shoes for repair that need to be picked up at 10:15 am for an 11:30 am rehearsal.  He always says yes, just like the folks at Presto Valet who turn around the dry cleaning we drop off at midnight for a delivery the next morning.  I’m lucky to be able to rely on local businesses that help us lift up our work.  
    With the repair finished, I thanked Don Roderigo and rushed back to theater at half hour to deliver a beautifully repaired, safe tap shoe to Luke.  I will never forget that his dressing room mate, Chaz Wolcott, said "Wow--That healed quick."  My reply:  "That's what we do at Arena."  Luke tapped in that repaired shoe for the rest of the run.  I learned a lot that Saturday night in December.  The biggest lesson is one I’m quick to continually recognize:  we don’t do this alone.  This was a community effort at art from all sides, including the audience expectations.
    We planned the best to make sure Luke’s tap wouldn't fall off but it did.  When it did we showed up.  We always show up for anyone on our team because they show up for us. People may need us to show up now more than ever.  Yes, the tears of catharsis are part of the drama, but if we truly care about the team we show up for each other.  Showing up for each other is something Arena Stage owns.  Folks in costumes have been known to show up early as 6:00 am some days and other costume staff stay as late as Midnight to keep the artistry running.  We have a community around us that supports us through their businesses.  We do this just in time for the audience to show up.  None of us planned for this, but even remotely, people have found ways to show up.  
    I personally showed up to the Mead Center last week as the world deals with Covid-19 .  My mission, to collect fabric to make face masks.  The costume staff agreed to band together remotely to create hundreds of washable, reusable face masks to donate to the Children's National Hospital System.  When I went in to grab fabric to make reusable face masks I was faced with an empty room.  It was only sad for a moment.  Somehow my spirits brightened immediately when I realized that though the room was empty, the shop would soon be vibrant.  Sadly, not together in person but definitely together in mission:  making masks to help people get through this test.  
    For every artist finding ways to contribute through the uncertainty, I say bravo!  For all the businesses getting creative to help maintain our community, thanks for continuing in that spirit.  My mom and dad would have given me the same advice as always through this very strange, fragile time.  My mom always cautioned me to “bloom where you are planted.”  My dad’s wisdom:  “It will come and it will go.”  Yes, we need this time to pass more than ever, but how we bloom during this matters in so many ways.  As much as anyone else, I need our community to restore.  When it does, I’ll keep showing up.