Humans of TCGMC: Brandon Sieck
For our next installment, Josh Elmore talks with Brandon Sieck, one of our singers who also works with the Minnesota Opera…
Josh: ONE OF YOUR PASSIONS THAT I’VE HEARD ABOUT IS – GIVE ME THE RIGHT TERM – COSTUME DESIGN?
Brandon: Close! A lot of people actually use the wrong terminology. Costume design deals with people who take a character from an opera, or theater, and they create a look for them. They create their visual identity. The costume designer will design – they create something. That design trickles down to the costume shop, which builds that design. They make it a reality – a physical costume. Once the costumes are built and the characters have something to wear, it comes to my crew, the Wardrobe Technicians.
In the world of opera that I work, the costume shop will finish building the costumes, and then it becomes our job to get the performers into the costumes, and help them learn how to wear (and quickly remove) the costumes on stage. Throughout the show, we are the ones doing the quick changes, taking care of the costumes, cleaning the costumes after every show, and performing last-minute repairs on pieces, like someone who rips their hem out two seconds before going on stage.
Josh: THAT’S EXCITING! TELL ME MORE ABOUT SOME OF THE COSTUMES YOU’VE WORKED WITH THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER.
Brandon: I’ve done eight operas with the festival I’ve worked with over the summers. The costumes have ranged from 19th-century dresses to found-fabric costumes that are more animal than human. This past year, we did a show where every character started as an animal, and throughout the show they changed something slightly – like their pants were pinned up higher, or their coat was worn in a different fashion – and they became a person instead of an animal. That show was so much fun, because the costumes weren’t exactly like normal, everyday clothes. They may have pants or a blouse, but then they have these additions to make them animals. They might have a wing harness, or a helmet with giant eyes on it to make them a dragonfly. One of my characters was a squirrel. She had plain clothes as her base, but she also had a giant tail with leather cordsattached so she could control it. Basically, the costumes I work with depend on the specific show and what the designer thinks a character should look like.
Josh: HOW DID YOUR INTEREST BEGIN?
Brandon: It started with sewing. My grandmother taught me how to do simple stitches when I was pretty young. In high school, I did little repairs for myself. The bulk of what I learned about costumes, though, came from college. When I first started in my college theater department, they started me in the scene shop, and they soon realized I didn’t do too well with set building…or power tools. They threw me in the costume shop, and I learned how to use a sewing machine, a serger, and how to turn fabric and materials into something someone could wear. Iworked on costumes for over 20 productions at my school. After college, I started looking for bigger opportunities, and I found the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia for my first professional costuming job. I learned how to work in fast-paced professional theater, and from there, I made my next step to the Glimmerglass Festival, and that’s where I’ve been for the past three years!
Josh: WHAT IS THE GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL?
Brandon: The Glimmerglass Festival is an internationally-acclaimed opera festival that happens in central New York – rural New York. The festival is located just outside of Cooperstown. It’s funny because in the summer, you can tell who is there for the opera and who is there for the Baseball Hall of Fame. The festival employs over 350craftspeople and artisans during a season, and 20 full-time staff members who work for the festival year-round. We put on four main stage productions every season, along with a youth opera, a second stage show, recitals, literary discussions, and benefit concerts. The festival itself goes from late-June until August.
Josh: BEYOND THE FESTIVAL IN THE SUMMER, DO YOU DO ANY WORK IN THE CITIES?
Brandon: I work with a few smaller theaters and some larger companies around the Cities during the year. Anything I can do that doesn’t interfere with a 9-5 job, which I do now. I’ve worked with some small theaters, like Park Square in St. Paul, and I worked with the Guthrie briefly on A Christmas Carol as one of their child supervisors. Most recently, I’ve been working with Minnesota Opera as a supernumerary, which means I’m on stage, performing; quite a bit different than life behind the curtain!
Josh: THAT’S AWESOME! TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MOMENTS WORKING WITH COSTUMES. IS THERE A MOMENT THAT STANDS OUT TO YOU WHEN YOU WERE MOST NEEDED, WHERE YOU SUCCEEDED?
Brandon: In my job, the high-stakes things happen during the shows. Before and after the shows, we’re doing a lot of everyday things like laundry and repairs. Definitely an important necessity, but it’s not very exciting. Quick changes are the main event.
This last year, I had one of the greatest successes of my career. We were doing the opera Silent Night, which is about the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I. In the beginning of the opera, there are two characters who are on stage for one of the first scenes. After talking about going to war, they exit, and they have 35 seconds to change for the battle scene. They’re in full soldier uniforms! My performer had to hand off 2 props and run over to me to change, AND THEN dash up four flights of stairs to the third level for his next entrance. As hectic as the change was, we were able to execute it nearly perfectly every night thanks to speed, precision, and a lotof quick-rigged pieces. One particular night, the costume director for Washington National Opera was there to observe the show since they were doing the production next, and one of the changes she noted was mine – she just appeared! Executing a complex change like that where every second had to be perfectly choreographed was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had as a wardrobe technician.
Josh: LIVE THEATER HAS ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, GOOD OR BAD! WHAT’S SOMETHING THAT WENT WRONG?
Brandon: A lot of the time in the wardrobe world, mistakes happen with quick changes. Things are so fast that mistakes are bound to happen if everyone involved isn’t 100% focused on the change.
During Silent Night, my coworker and I had to do a tandem quick change on a performer. He had to run up several flights of stairs, and we had to do a 1-minute change where he dropped part of his uniform, added new pieces to his look, and even had some blood added to his face and hands. I was in charge of putting on the puttees, which are these long straps of wool soldiers would wrap around their legs and boots to prevent trench foot. Like my other quick change, this was a change that required very specific positioning and movement from both the performer and the technicians. On this particular night, when the performer came up the stairs, he started facing the wrong direction! Meanwhile, I have a flashlight in my mouth, puttees in my hand, and I’m frantically trying to get him to turn around. We were able to get him on stage for his entrance, but I won’t forget the look of panic on all our faces!
Josh: THAT SOUNDS TERRIFYING! I’M GLAD YOU SURVIVED. THE JOYS OF LIVE PERFORMANCE! THOSE ARE GREAT MOMENTS. WHAT IS SOMETHING BEHIND THE SCENES THAT PEOPLE WOULD BE INTERESTED TO KNOW ABOUT COSTUME/WARDROBE WORK?
Brandon: Something that’s not immediately obvious is the work that goes into costumes and wardrobe. The only time the audience sees the costumes is when they’re on stage. To get them on stage, it takes thousands of hours to design, create, and maintain them. Anyone who works backstage in the theater –stage ops, LX and sound, prop artisans –everyone who works in production is an unsung hero; the most important aspect of our job is that the audience never knows we are there. We want the audience to never have to realize that we just did something, because it ruins the magic of the show. Even though you don’t see us, we’re there doing a thousand different things. We don’t get a lot of praise for it, but we realize that – we signed up for that. However, it’s nice to get a little recognition and know that our work is appreciated.
Josh: FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, I RECOGNIZE YOU, BRANDON. I HAVE ONE LAST QUESTION: I HAVE A BUTTON THAT NEEDS TO BE SEWN ON, AND I’M INEPT. CAN YOU ASSIST
Brandon: Of course! I will do it one time, but you have to pay attention, because then you’re going to learn how to do it yourself!