Portland designers put more than thread into holiday stage costumes
PORTLAND — Locked in the tower, the Miller’s daughter had Rumpelstiltskin to help her turn straw into gold.
In Portland, Gail Csoboth and Susan Thomas use only their own magic to transform inexpensive materials into extraordinary costumes that transfix audiences attending ballet and stage performances.
Csoboth designs and creates costumes for Maine State Ballet in Falmouth, and Thomas is the manager of the costume shop for the Portland Stage Company. Both women are native Mainers who began their careers outside the state, but ultimately decided to return home.
Csoboth grew up on Peaks Island and began ballet classes at the Dorothy Mason School of Dance. At 15 , she left Maine to study dance at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City and did not return until 12 years later.
Although Csoboth never studied art or costume design, she paid close attention to the costumes she wore. She especially credits a teacher at a dance camp she attended on Cape Cod, who she said “opened up my mind on nature, art, and theater.”
Csoboth, who also teaches ballet at Maine State Ballet, believes that growing up on Peaks influences her designs and inspires her to create costumes that mirror the flowing movements found in nature.
Thomas grew up in Westbrook and learned to sew from her grandmothers. She left Maine to attend Smith College, where she studied theater. After working in the costume shop of the Geva Theater Center in Rochester, N.Y., Thomas returned to Maine as an intern with Portland Stage.
Thomas said “the internship was very helpful” and provided her “with hands-on experience.” She ultimately became the costume shop manager and is in her seventh year in the position.
Both women are the creative forces behind the costumes produced. Before beginning the design process for a ballet’s costumes, Csoboth does extensive research into the ballet, as well as the history of the period in which it occurs. She said she wants to understand the country where the ballet is set and its culture and searches for “the flavor of an era – what people did and how they behaved.”
Although they are charged with creating and maintaining hundreds of costumes in a single season, neither woman has an extensive staff. Thomas works with one intern, Claire Robinson, and one volunteer, Cheslie Ventimiglia. Throughout the year, Csoboth is largely assisted in the construction of costumes by volunteers Beth Pelletier, Chris Wolfe, and Rebecca Kurtz, who are mothers of students at Maine State. During the few weeks before the opening of a ballet, additional volunteers help in altering the ballet costumes by hand.
Currently, Csoboth and Thomas are facing their biggest tests of the year: Maine State Ballet’s production of "The Nutcracker" opens Nov. 24 and Portland Stage’s adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" starts its run on Nov. 30. Each show has large ensemble casts, and this year, both will feature numerous new costumes, including an enormous one for the Mother Ginger character in "The Nutcracker."
Once the holiday season is over, Csoboth and Thomas will turn their attention to spring productions.
Thomas said she is eagerly anticipating the challenge of creating costumes for "Wittenburg," a period piece about Martin Luther that will be performed at the end of April. Csoboth will focus on creating new costumes for Maine State’s presentation of "Alice In Wonderland."
Despite the strenuous work schedule, both women remain stimulated by their work.
“Every show is different, and you have to think," Thomas said. "You’re dealing with actors, a director, and designers. You can’t be on auto pilot.”