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Columbia Missourian

Stephens College costume design provides insight into characters

By Nancy Stiles
October 29, 2009 | 6:28 p.m. CDT
Garret Fresh helps Stephanie Nieman, a fourth year student at Stephens College, get ready for the dress rehearsal of "Ah, Wilderness" at Macklenburg Playhouse on Wednesday. Nieman plays Belle in the play and said, "I feel like I have the prettiest dress in the whole show."

COLUMBIA — Red and white gingham fabric lays across a work table at the Stephens College costume closet. Some pieces are pinned to patterns; others are cut and discarded. A pair of enormous scissors engraved with "Cynda" wait nearby.

"I'm making a little 'middie', a drop waist dress for Mildred," said Cynda Galikin , costume designer for Stephens College's "Ah, Wilderness!" showing. "It's just in my head, so no one else could work on it."

If you go

What: "Ah, Wilderness!"

When: Through Sunday and Nov. 6 and 7

Where: Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Ave.

Tickets: $6 to $12

Information: 876-7199 or go to

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"Ah, Wilderness!" is Eugene O'Neill's 1933 coming-of-age comedy set in Victorian Connecticut. It follows a family's experience with their son's first love when he copies down a scandalous poem for his beloved, much to her father's chagrin.

Galikin, an assistant professor in the Stephens Theater Department, created the dress from scratch for the character of Mildred, the fifteen-year-old sister of the play's protagonist.

"The fabric the director envisions Mildred wearing isn't trendy anymore, so it's been very difficult to find," Galikin said.

With the correct type of fabric — not the 100 percent polyester she could find — Galikin said she would have been able to dip the material in dye, which would darken the white to brown and make the red look more natural. However, the plastic nature of polyester would not hold the dye.

"In a big show like this, it's important to coordinate the colors. They all seem to have a flow to them," she said.

Although the show is set on the fourth and fifth of July in 1906, the costume designers did not dress the cast in all-American red, white and blue. They focused on creating ensembles that reflected the period and the nuances of individual characters.

"I enjoy analyzing the character to see what element of their costume can reveal their true character," Galikin said. "I think of it in terms of not a costume but the character's clothes. What would they put on in the morning?"

She typically reads through a script three times to understand the roles and then does research on the period before making sketches and presenting them to the director.

Galikin has been a professional costume designer since 1987 and has worked with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Lindenwood University and the Operafestival di Roma in Italy. She is the head milliner for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. She began working at Stephens College in January as costume design professor Patti Doyle's sabbatical replacement, then she was hired at Stephens full-time.

"I started in high school—I would make costumes for rock 'n' roll bands," she said.

Costume Shop Forman Nicole Beasley worked with the actors on fittings, which was more difficult than usual because of a flu outbreak. She saw the actress playing Mildred for her first fitting only four days before the first dress rehearsal.

"Right now, I'm working on wingtip collars for the characters, just trying to get them finished up," said Beasley as she brought a collar for Galikin to inspect.

"Topstitch the edge, too. That'll keep it from rolling under," Galikin said, turning over the white collar in her hands.

 Some items were already in the Costume Shop or could be borrowed, but other pieces were so specific that Galikin and her team had to create them.

"After renderings have been approved by the director, we go to the costume stock and see what best fits the design ideas we have—modify what we can and build the rest. It's about collaboration and compromise," Galikin said.

The costumes were meant to reflect the tone of the play.

"It's a look at innocence and how the definition of innocence has changed over the years," said Galikin. "I think we need that right now, to reflect on a time that wasn't so brutal."