Dressed to impress

Professional costumer Jessica Minnihan’s designs help actors build character

Jessica Minnihan knows how to dress up a show.

Jessica Minnihan knows how to dress up a show.

Photo By anne stokes

See Jessica Minnihan’s additions to the original B.Modern-designed costumes in A Christmas Carol, playing 7 p.m. Wednesday; 12:30 and 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; $20-$40. Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H Street; (916) 443-6722; www.sactheatre.org. Through December 23.

Sacramento Theatre Company

1419 H St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 446-7501

For one of Sacramento’s busiest professional costumers, it all started with a broken light board.

Undergraduate theater majors usually start with tech work, while onstage roles go to juniors and seniors. When Jessica Minnihan studied as a theater major at Central College in Pella, Iowa, she was sent to learn lighting design on her first production.

“When I tried to set up lights, a bunch of sparks flew, so they sent me down to the costume shop,” she said. “Since I knew what a sewing machine was, they were glad to have me. And it turned out I was good at it.”

These days, she works during the winter “season”—September through April—as the costume-shop manager and resident costume designer for the Sacramento Theatre Company. When the short summer season rolls around, she’s the head costume-crafts artisan with Sacramento’s musical favorite, Music Circus.

That comes after internships at the Des Moines Metro Opera and with Walt Disney World Resort as a costumer. For Disney, she worked on the princess characters’ costumes.

“It was a couple of summers playing with shiny objects,” she said. After a post-graduation stint in charge of the costume shop at Iowa’s Simpson College, Minnihan was hired by STC—which puts her in the enviable position of being a full-time professional theatrical costumer.

Costumes are every bit as important to a show as lighting, scenery and, yes, acting. Not only do well-done costumes support the theatrical illusion, good costumes support the rest of the work.

“My goal is to help actors build the characters through what they’re wearing,” Minnihan said.

Sometimes that’s not easy, given budgetary restraints on productions.

“A director may ask for the moon and only have $200, and that’s a challenge,” Minnihan said. “But the real problem is the current climate for the arts, with the funding difficulties. That leads us to make something out of nothing, which is always a challenge, but can also be fun.”

Her most recent projects include work with KOLT Run Creations on its sell-out extended run of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, as well as STC’s season opener, The Miracle Worker.

With The Miracle Worker, the play based on events in the life of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, the design process found Minnihan “surrounded by children’s books.”

It’s not enough to put children in pint-sized versions of adult clothing from the period—the late 19th century. Instead, she looked in children’s literature for images of the well-dressed kid of the times.

“I was obsessed with what they would have worn,” she said.

In Vinegar Tom, the characters were fictional, but the play was set in 16th-century England among working-class rural people.

“I wanted to figure out what their life is like in order to know what they would be wearing,” Minnihan said.

“With KOLT Run, it’s never really cut-and-dried,” she said, pointing out that the company was not only doing Churchill’s plainly feminist work, but was also using original music, some multimedia elements and an empty swimming pool for a performance space. That meant they’d need “more realistic costumes instead of a set.”

Minnihan’s favorite work—at least, so far—is a bit harder to nail down. She took some time to think about it, and noted that she likes “the tech stuff that goes with [costuming]—the dye work and the millinery work.”

Ultimately, she settled on the pieces she did for STC’s 2010 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

“The director, Matt K. Miller, gave me a lot of freedom for the costumes, and I’ve got an amazing crew that executed my vision so well,” she said. “Lady Bracknell, in particular, had a detailed costume that was perfectly fit. My stitcher and draper did such a wonderful job.

“It was having the freedom to go for it and see how it turned out,” Minnihan said.

Of course, that’s the whole point of theater, even from behind the curtain.