Close encounters

Scenes from the costume shop
 By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

04 OCTOBER 00 | Three dust-encrusted mesh sheep stare down from above like hunters' trophies as Wendy Sparks carves a small head from a cube of blue Styrofoam.

She's careful, but quick, with her coworker's serrated bread knife. The student production of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" is fast approaching and her articulated doll must be ready in time for the first dress rehearsal.

Brecht's play opens in a Russian village following World War II. The doll represents a small boy abandoned by the governor's wife and saved by a peasant woman. Before Sparks is done, he'll have felt skin, rosy cheeks, his own cotton outfit and a shock of fluffy blond hair. "Kind of a three-year old big puff head," she says fondly.

Also on the costume shop's to-do list are 20 traditional Russian peasant costumes and four satin outfits for the local upper crust. Plus 32 masks that Janet Griffin Nakamura is busy crafting.

Across the workbench, she hovers maternally over a ghostly gathering of white plaster masks: "All my little faces staring back at me!"

Once they dry, she'll add bumps and creases in a layer of gray dough made of water and pulverized newspapers. Gradually, she says, each mask assumes a personality to which she'll become attached.

Sparks can identify. "Your dolls aren't finished until you have to kiss them," she says. After the first kiss, "I know I'm doing it right; it's all about loving them."

On the far side of the room - near a wall of labeled boxes holding fishnet, black lace, fake fur, military medals, straw horsehair, canvas pieces, giant fringe - costume-shop veteran Roberta Vance measures a Harvard transfer for the white cotton tunic she'll wear in the play.

Casually wielding her measuring tape, Vance recalls her sole visit to Harvard Yard - on Thanksgiving morning, in the rain. Her soft laughter wafts across the room as she recalls the misadventure.

Humor is routine here, where building a lovable puppet, a diva's gown or a tap-dancing tomato outfit is all in a day's work.

"Thirty-one years and I'm still laughing," Vance proclaims. "I never get bored. The minute I do, the show goes up and I start a new one."

That's the nature of theater - "an art form that's fleeting and momentary," as Sparks puts it. "You can't take it away."

Not so for the wardrobe, these costume aficionadas are quick to point out. Long after the footlights have faded, their work survives - in the Department of Dramatic Arts' vast collection in the bowels of Zellerbach, and the joyful clutter of the workshop, providing touchstones to theatrical productions past.

The sheep heads were "our beasts of the jury," for "Joan of Arc at the Stake," an opera produced in the '70s, remembers Vance. The pink mice and chartreuse goat appeared in "Faust." A clutch of roses attached to one wall were an immodest top that Sparks created for "Midsummer's Night's Dream." "

They wheeled Titania out on a huge brass bed of red roses - in a negligee with flower blossoms," she recalls, eyeing the blue foam head for symmetry before taking her next whack. "The actress was loathe to be wearing such a ridiculous thing" - but "absolutely stunning" nonetheless.

"That was the second time we did 'Dream,'" Vance amends. The first time, ages ago, the lovers were costumed in Elizabethan white, she says - then pauses, remembering the show: "The whole stage was a hill of grass, and they had to keep the grass aliveŠ."

"Close Encounters" is a new, occasional Berkeleyan column documenting unofficial moments in campus life. If you have an idea for a column, contact Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell at or 643-9259.

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