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A Costumer's Story

04.08.06 04:24 PM – Andy McDonald
Mary Ann Shupe is well known for her costuming work in period pieces like "She Stoops to Conquer."
If there's truth to the old adage that one can't make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it's probably best not to tell that to Berea College costumer Mary Ann Shupe. She might just prove you wrong.

With less than a week to go until dress rehearsals for a college production of "Rumors." Shupe could be found in her studio, laboring to fashion 27-pieces of green crepe into an elegant chiffon dress worthy of a socialite. For Shupe, it's nothing new. During her 22-year tenure with the Berea College Theatre Laboratory, she and her staff of student workers have conquered steeper challenges.

For a 2002 production of "Camelot," Shupe oversaw the creation of no less than 55 capes, crocheted knight's coifs out of black garbage bags, and helped fit the Knights of the Roundtable with chain armor constructed almost entirely from soft drink tabs.

"You do what you can with the time you've got, and the personnel and money you’ve got," Shupe said. "I think there are a couple of things I wish we could have done differently, but you always feel that way about a show. Even on Broadway, I'm sure there are designers that say, 'I wish I could have done this.' But you have to let it go."

Originally from Logan, West Virginia, Shupe enrolled in Berea College in 1964. By her second year, she was working at the Tabernacle, or "Tab" as students called it, where the college's theatre program was based. Since Berea offered no degree in costuming, Shupe pieced together a curriculum that gave her the basic tools of her trade – a degree in home economics, complimented with a generous helping of design and art history courses.

Shupe credits her love for sewing to her mother, who worked at the college's Needlecraft facility as a fabric cutter and principal stitcher. While the college taught her most of what she knows about costuming and theatre, Shupe says her parents instilled in her qualities that have proved especially important in her field, including a drive to be detail oriented, diligence in researching projects, and being very particular about the way costumes fit. "It takes as much energy to do it right as it does to do it wrong," Shupe said. "And if you aim to do it right, it’s okay if you have to rip it out and redo. My parents were like that – if you didn’t do the best you could, what was the point? I guess that's influenced me all my life."

After graduating in 1968, Shupe became very involved with local theatre, volunteering for "Wilderness Road" and other projects while she raised her two children. But when the opportunity came to return to Berea College in 1983, she joined the theater staff and happily picked up where she left off.

Since returning, Shupe has worked on approximately 50 stage productions, plying her talents in everything from modern plays to elegant period pieces like "She Stoops to Conquer," which calls for a lush assortment of finery along with many corsets and wigs. Asked to name the projects she would most like to pursue, Shupe named "Dracula" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

As much as she enjoys design, perhaps the most edifying part of Shupe's work is not creating costumes, but in sharing the love of her trade with her five student assistants who dedicate 10 hours a week, sometimes more, to learning the craft.

"It’s always a joy to get someone who loves what you do," Shupe said. "You both share something, and you come to realize you have a colleague in the making."
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