For a cast of characters: costumes by Kay Anderson
There’s a unique exhibit being displayed in the art gallery at Nicolet College. At first glance, it seems as if a hodgepodge of characters have come to life, but on closer inspection it’s three rooms of handiwork created by Kay Anderson, who has for the last 20 years designed, and sewn, many of the costumes for the actors who have performed at the Nicolet Live! Theater.
There are the intricate and ornate costumes of Shakespearean characters, such as the delicately beaded dress of Juliet and the rich and lavish costume of Romeo. There are costumes of frightful ghosts who have glided across the stage in wispy strips of black and blue organza; there are children costumes of dinosaurs and Sesame Street characters; and even delicately made underwear for plays that require flirty maidens to allow a peek or two.
It’s the type of exhibit that invokes a sense of awe whether visitors know how to sew or not. And sewing is a skill Kay has been honing since she was 5 years old. It was at the knee of her mother Buena, that Kay took her first stitch while growing up on the family farm in Richland Center. In fact, Kay’s first creation, a tiny pink and white skirt, is also in the exhibit.
“Sewing was something my mom did a lot of while I was growing up,” Kay said. “She made wedding dresses and over the years she sewed lots of bridesmaid and prom dresses.”
And it didn’t take much for Buena to encourage her daughter to continue with the hobby. After she made that tiny pink and white skirt, Kay was very enthusiastic to learn more.
“I was always picking out projects that were beyond my skill level but Mom never discouraged me,” she said. “She always helped get the project done.” In fact there’s even a light blue prom dress on display that Kay actually wore during her high school years.
And while Kay loves sewing, she did not pursue a career in that field after graduating high school. She attended Luther College receiving a degree in biology and then received a degree in occupational therapy from St. Catherine University. Now she serves as the Director of Occupational Therapy for Ministry Health. However, she has found that the skills of a seamstress come in handy for an occupational therapist.
“There are lots of incidences where you have to use your imagination to help out a patient such as if they need a special type of cast,” she said. “You have to be able to adapt things to a patient and that’s what I always did when I was sewing. That has come in handy in my career.”
Kay came to Rhinelander when she was hired as an occupational therapist at the hospital in 1991. It wasn’t long before she made her way to Nicolet College after learning about the plays that were performed there. Kay has a deep love for the theater and acted in many plays and productions during her high school and college days. Soon enough, she was not only performing at Nicolet, but was also sewing costumes for many of the characters and productions. That started 20 years ago.
“I had a cast party after the first production I was in and brought out a Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy costume I had made,” she said. “After that I was asked if I would be willing to help out with making costumes and I have been doing that ever since.”
There’s a lot of planning, and research, involved in making the costumes for plays like A Comedy of Errors or A Christmas Carol which require clothing to depict an ornate style of dress from long ago. It may take months to make all the costumes for a certain performance. For instance, right now Kay is preparing for The Mystery of Edwin Drood that will be performed in May. Kay also studies from books and from productions of other performances to create just the right look for her creations.
Another one of her talents is drawing, and she almost always sketches out her characters in full dress before threading a needle. Some of these depictions are also on display.
“I like to put down on paper what I have imagined in my head before I start a costume,” she said. “That gives me a good starting point.”
Unbelievably, Kay does not use any patterns when creating her costumes. She does choose her fabric very carefully though and with a certain color theme in mind. Many times these themes are very subtle, but important to the integrity of a play.
“It gives a performance continuity,” she said.
Often, to get just the correct hue, Kay may dye a piece of fabric or even paint on the cloth, adding swirls, dots or stripes.
“It all depends on what an actor needs to make them become that character,” she said. “You have to really use your imagination.”
As she slowly strolls through the exhibit, looking at all her handiwork, she can recall the work and patience it took to create certain costumes, but it’s obvious this has been a labor of love over the years for this skillful seamstress.
“There were some times when it got a little harry as far as deadlines go,” she said. “But I have always enjoyed sewing and I have really enjoyed being part of the Nicolet Theater.”
The Celebration of Costumes and Theatre exhibit will be on display until Nov. 17 at Nicolet College in the LRC building.