2017-09-01 / Up Close

Stitching for the Stage

Local costumer Julie Snyder helps actors find the threads of their characters.
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

If you’ve been to a community theater production in State College in the last decade, chances are you’ve seen some of Julie Snyder’s handiwork.

Snyder, 34, has been working as a costumer for a collection of local theater groups since the fateful day more than 10 years ago when the costumer for the musical Oliver! dropped out as opening night neared.
“That’s where it started,” Snyder says of her harried behind-the-scenes debut with FUSE Productions, when she was called upon to, quite literally, stitch up loose ends. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was able to jump in and finish.”

She’d taught herself to sew in high school, eventually sewing the wedding clothes she and her husband, artist Will Snyder, wore at their Victorian-themed wedding in 2004. Since then, though, her sewing machine had largely been gathering dust.

But Snyder has always been a performer. She’s been dancing since she was a child, first with the Pauline Baker-Rodgers School of Dance in Altoona, then with Central Pennsylvania Dance Workshop and the Pennsylvania Dance Theatre. She also sang in her school’s choir, acted and worked as a choreographer in high school theater productions, and played saxophone in the Penn State Marching Blue Band.

So after receiving her degree in French and business from Penn State in 2004, the Altoona native’s creative nature and love of the arts were bound to surface somewhere. And they have — on countless bodies, on several stages, in dozens of stories.

Snyder has been the costumer for at least 55 productions since that Oliver! debut, creating costumes for not only FUSE Productions but also for State High Thespians, Singing Onstage, Delta Middle and Delta High School, State College Community Theatre, Nittany Theatre at the Barn and PSU Opera.
She says her favorite part of being a costumer is, well, all of it.

“I enjoy the meetings and the brainstorming and the sewing,” she says, then pauses.  “Until it gets to be too much — too much to do and I’m only one person.”

One person to come up with ideas for what dozens of actors will wear throughout a production’s many scenes. One person to research fabrics and clothing styles from whatever era and region in which the story is set. One person to find, make, rent and buy the right articles and accessories. One person to measure actors, sew costumes, make alterations and fix mishaps. And that’s just before the curtain goes up.

It’s impossible to count the hours Snyder spends working on a typical production. “It’s hard to put a measure on that,” she says, “because often I’m doing my brainstorming while I’m rocking my child to sleep, or making dinner, or driving somewhere.”

On weekends, the kids come in for a couple hours and we work on the show together. I try to get them on the machines sewing, making the costumes that the actors are going to wear. I’m hired as a coach.”

With four children ages 9, 7, 6 and 1, the time-consuming nature of the costuming job has become much more complicated in recent years. There has been the occasional all-nighter, which she says she always regrets.

Alongside a very hectic home life, Snyder’s work schedule so far this year has included six shows for three different troupes:  Elephant and Piggie’s ‘We Are In a Play!’ and Camelot for FUSE Productions; Man of La Mancha and Treasure Island for Nittany Theatre; and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale for State High Thespians.

While she’s set on scaling back on the number of productions she agrees to work on, Snyder will keep up her part-time job as a costume advisor for State High, where she gets to not only dress the actors for their performances, but teach them the ways of costuming — and let them help her out.

“Part of the high school job is it’s always a learning thing for the kids. On weekends, the kids come in for a couple hours and we work on the show together. I try to get them on the machines sewing, making the costumes that the actors are going to wear,” she says. “I’m hired as a coach, actually. So it’s not just costume design.”

And as a costumer with no formal training, she’s learning as she goes — particularly from Diane Toyos, the costume shop supervisor at Penn State, where Snyder rents many pieces she uses for various productions.

“From her I’ve learned about fabrics and how their dresses are put together, how their garments are made, how they’re built to be alterable, the little tricks you wouldn’t do on a normal garment but that looks great on a theater garment,” she says. “So I’ve looked at how they put things together and started doing that with things I was making.”

And she’s able to share her newfound knowledge practically in real time to the students she “coaches.”
“I tell the kids at the high school, ‘Look, I’ve been doing this awhile, but I’m always open to learning.

You gotta keep learning. Don’t ever think that you know it all, because you definitely don’t,’” she says.
Snyder works mostly from a small room off the living room in her Port Matilda home. She still uses the first sewing machine she ever owned, a gift from her parents. The chaos of life with little kids creeps into her job on the regular; there are constant interruptions and needs, small tasks that pull her in different directions.

It’s been a hectic year, with Will traveling for work a few times and Snyder juggling costuming duties for three productions last season. The madness of two parents who both work highly creative, time-consuming jobs with four young kids all home for the summer was as laughably chaotic as one might imagine.

Though she’s bent on scaling back her workload this fall, focusing only on her duties at the high school and some co-costuming work for FUSE, Snyder still says she’s right where she belongs.  

“This summer I kept saying, ‘I know it’s crazy right now, but I’m still enjoying myself.’” •SCM

Return to top