Inside 'Oliver': Costuming a Big-Budget Musical

After 20 years as executive director of the University of Washington's School of Drama, Sarah Nash Gates is retiring at the end of this year. But unlike most retirees, Gates isn't looking to put her feet up. She's leaving one job to spend more time working on her other job: costume designer. "Two or three years ago I said to [5th Avenue artistic director] David Armstrong, "When I retire I'm coming with my portfolio to interview, because I want to work here!" But Armstrong beat her to it, and asked her to design the 5th Avenue's winter production of Oliver!, a Dickensian behemoth of a musical.

"He called me and said, 'Sarah, I need a mature designer," Gates says with a laugh. With 40 years experience, she is certainly that. Gates found her passion for design as a freshman in college, when she was studying acting. "I discovered I was more interested in what people looked like that what I was supposed to say to them," she says. "I knew what I wanted to do." She's been doing it ever since. We joined Gates for a morning in the busy, beautiful costume shop of the 5th Avenue Theatre, to see this design master at work.

Gates marks the hem of a rough muslin jacket on Oliver star Jeffrey Weber, so she and her team can tailor the end result properly. It's just one of the nearly 250 total costumes that comprise this mammoth show.

The upbeat attitude that permeates the 5th Avenue's costume shop today clearly starts at the top. Gates' natural warmth puts co-workers (and crucially, young actors) at ease, and the young Weber seems to be enjoying himself.

After an initial meeting with Armstrong to discuss their vision for the show, Gates got started sketching the many looks that Oliver! will require. As a costume historian, she pays incredible attention to period details, while allowing herself flexibility to be as theatrical as this big musical requires.

With so many costume pieces required for this show, organization is essential. Gates and her crack team of costumers make sure everything is in place, down to the racks of hats, tubs of scarves and an array of socks that seem to appear out of nowhere.

 When Gates asks, "Do we have any hats?" the room snaps into action. "We have hat options," says master craftsperson Jeana Gomez. What follows is a rapid-fire discussion of color, texture, brim-length and fit. With so many detailed decisions to be made so quickly, an experienced designer like Gates is critical. In her career, she's designed at ACT, Intiman Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Seattle Rep, Seattle Opera and Barnum and Bailey Circus, among many others. 


In addition to the costumes they are making, buying, and pulling from the 5th Avenue's own costume stock, Nash and her team are renting pieces from all over. Gates names Seattle Opera, the UW, Oregon Shakespeare and more as sources, along with an entire production of Oliver! they've rented from a company in New York. The workhouse costumes pictured above are from that production, but they will be distressed with extra patches and a fake-dirt product called, seriously, Schmutz.

 "Oh, we have Nancy on a dress form!" Gates exclaims, weaving her way further into the bustling costume shop. This bright, Victorian frock is being built for Merideth Kaye Clark, the actress who plays the kindly, ill-fated leading lady of the musical.









Once Weber is given a final once-over, notes are made and polaroids are taken, so everything Gates and her staff have decided will be translated into the finished product.  So, how is Oliver! going to look on stage? You'll have to get to the 5th Avenue and find out. Oliver! runs through Dec. 31.

Photos by Nate Watters

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