ABINGDON, Va. — Stages at Barter Theatre may be dark right now due to the pandemic, but artistry at the Moonlite Drive-In is shining brightly as ever since the Abingdon theater relocated its acting troupe to the historic drive-in in July.
The venue isn’t the only thing different about the performances.
Many of the costumes must be designed to fit the outdoor setting amidst the evening sunsets and hovering stars that surround the actors on the raised stage, 15 feet off the ground.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of actors at Barter Theatre, but according to Sydney de Briel, the coronavirus has also changed the way the resident costume designer works behind the scenes.
“The biggest change now is the proximity in which we can work with not only the people in the costume shop but with the actors,” she said.
“Ordinarily, we spent a lot of time with the actors in fittings, and that usually takes place in person. With the pandemic, we are definitely limited.
“That was one of the big concerns about returning to operations after our initial shutdown.”
According to de Briel, all employees and volunteers at Barter Theatre are adhering to strict safety guidelines from the Medical Advisory Board and the CDC.
“We wanted to reopen the Barter, but we didn’t want it to cost anyone their safety,” she said.
“But the one thing we cannot do completely virtual is costume fitting. You can’t pin yourself in a dress, and we cannot do a fitting from a distance.
“So we had to come up with a lot of regimented protocols on exactly how we were going to prepare for fittings. That meant figuring how we were going to sanitize clothes and even the space where we hold the fittings.”
After much deliberation, a plan of action was created.
According to de Briel, actors are required to follow a certain path through the theater building to reach the fitting room.
“No one else is allowed on that path — just the actors,” she said.
“I get a COVID test before each round of fittings and cannot begin the process until my results come back negative. We take a lot of precautions. I make sure my testing falls before I am scheduled for fittings.”
After alterations, costumes are sanitized on high heat in a clothes dryer, then placed in plastic dry cleaning bags and sprayed with a disinfectant so that the costumes are contaminant-free before getting to the fitting room.
“Actors open their own costume bags so that no one else touches their costume,” she said.
“You wouldn’t think this process would take that long, but for our first show, ‘Wizard of Oz,’ it required about six hours to complete the task.”
De Briel said it takes about three weeks now to get a show prepared with costuming — one week to talk with the director about the needs of the production; one week to start making costumes; and one week for fittings and alterations.
During this time of COVID concerns, the lobby of the Barter Theatre functions as a drop-off zone for theater props, which are then collected, cleaned and disinfected.
“We’ve got this down to a fine art,” said de Briel.
Ordinarily, there are people behind the Barter Theatre stages to help actors with quick wardrobe changes, she said.
“We don’t have that person in the Moonlite scenario, so we have to think about the actors who are playing multiple characters. They have to change their own clothes, which have to be easily changeable.”
De Briel designed costumes for “Mary Poppins Jr.,” which was performed recently at the Moonlite. “Some of the actors played over 10 characters, so you have to consider how the actors will manage without a backstage crew.
“We rely on camera angles and quick changes that one person can pull off,” said de Briel.
For example, the actor who played Bert also played Mrs. Andrew, the mean nanny.
“We needed this to be a complete change. We didn’t want the audience to recognize Bert.”
It was a case of thinking outside the box, said de Briel.
De Briel and her crew solved the dilemma by taking a skirt, shirt, a bunch of padding, a jacket and a necktie and spending about 25 hours stitching them all together so that the actor could wear them like a robe over top of his Bert costume.
“It was actually just one garment,” she said. “When he put it on, it looked like a full-period garment.”
It’s all in the details
When the Barter Theatre is in full swing, costumes on Gilliam Stage must stand out from a distance with bright colors and bold trims, and details are just as important for the close-up scenes on Barter Theatre’s Smith Stage.
“With the Moonlite productions,” said the costume designer, “it’s a magical mix of both because you’re getting that wide-picture shot of the stage from your car. You’re seeing all of those fine details in super close-ups 30 feet tall as its being simulcast to the screen,” she explained.
“We have to be creative and make sure the details and characters are effectively communicated — not only far away on a big stage but also with the fine details of a close-up camera.”
The costume designer said one of her favorite costumes she made this fall was for the headless horseman in the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
“It was super challenging. How do you take the fanciest girl in the show and make her able to do a quick change in less than one minute into a scary monster?” asked de Briel.
“A lot of football pads and foam,” she said with laughter.
“I used a premade revolutionary soldier uniform coat, a cape from our costume storage, junior football pads, car foam, some thermoplastics and the help of my good friend and props master for The Barter Players, Meg Pressley,” said de Briel.
“Our fall season is probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been part of. I helped to design ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by turning it into a musical. It was like bringing back an old favorite. We got to watch it grow.”
‘Always wanted to do this’
The costume designer spends hours bringing stories to life.
“It’s always what I wanted to do,” said de Briel, who has worked in the industry for 14 years.
Before coming to work for Barter Theatre, de Briel received a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater design and production from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, later earning her master’s degree from the University of Carolina–Greensboro.
Her grandmother, a graduate of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, loved fashion and design and taught de Briel how to sew.
“I spent every summer growing up with her in Carter County, Tennessee. I started hand-sewing when I was 9 and machine sewing at 12. I remember doing Barbie doll fashion shows in middle school,” reminisced de Briel.
“In high school, I would comb the thrift stores around Topsail Island, North Carolina, for cool vintage pieces and resell them to vintage clothing stores in downtown Wilmington for pocket money.
“I’m not entirely sure where my love of theater came from — it wasn’t something my parents often did or saw. But I came home in second grade and wanted to recite Juliet’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet” for our talent show.
“The road has unfolded from there,” she said.
De Briel said she wanted to be cast in every school play. She participated in an outdoor drama every year in Elizabethton, Tennessee, formerly called “The Wataugans” and now called “Liberty.” She even was an extra on the drama series “Dawson’s Creek.”
“I knew that I wanted to do theater, and I have always loved the mountains, so I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and went to college on a drama scholarship,” said de Briel.
She has worked in many local theaters including Flatrock Playhouse, North Carolina State Company and Triad Stage; opera companies including Greensboro Light Opera and Song Company and Greensboro Opera; dance companies including Carolina Ballet; and internationally as the wardrobe supervisor for Twyla Tharp’s 50th anniversary tour and as the costume shop faculty for the La Musica Lirica Opera program in Novafeltria, Italy.
Despite her extensive work around the country, de Briel said she is enamored with the theater setting at Moonlite.
“The Moonlite is such a magical setting. There’s something about being among the fall leaves, crisp air and the beautiful sunsets that enhance the setting of the plays.”
“Dracula” is currently playing through Nov. 8, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” plays until Nov. 11.
The holiday season at the Moonlite kicks off with “Frosty” from Nov. 27 to Dec. 23 and “A Christmas Carol” from Nov. 20 to Dec. 23.
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For tickets and information, visit www.bartertheatre.com.
Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com.