Donalee Burns is hard at work costuming 59 people in clothing appropriate for pre-revolutionary Russia.
Decorah’s New Minowa Players’ (NMP) summer musical “Fiddler on the Roof” will be performed at the Decorah High School Auditorium June 24, 25 and 26, and she has a lot to do to get everyone ready.
In her 41 years with NMP, Burns has costumed hundreds, if not thousands, of local actors. Some shows require only one complete costume for each character. Others, such as last year’s production of “Les Miserables,” require that actors have multiple costumes from multiple time periods, which makes the costumer's job much more difficult.
“Fiddler on the Roof” requires at least one basic costume for each person, plus additional pieces.
Clearly, Burns loves what she does.
Burns has been working with NMP in various roles since the first show was produced in 1975.
“I got into theatre to perform, and was in [NMP's] first summer musical. I was on stage in the first eleven summer musicals, but found out I love working behind the scenes too,” she said.
Besides acting and costuming, she has directed, stage managed, found and created props, production managed, and designed and built many sets for NMP. She also spent many years as a costumer for Luther College Opera and the Dorian Summer Opera program.
Costumes, hair and makeup are an important part of creating a character for the stage, and Burns’s experience with the theatre, skill with the needle, careful research, and care for each actor and who they portray is evident in all she does.
As costumer, she is in charge of designing and creating each piece every actor wears, or she finds it to rent, borrow or purchase.
“A show like ‘Fiddler’ is easier for me,” Burns said. “I’ve done lots of peasants before!”
Although Burns does a lot of research specifically for each year’s production, she has been working closely with Aaron Kvale, who is researching historically appropriate articles of clothing, hairstyles, props and uniforms for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“It’s very valuable to have accurate research when you’re dealing with religious beliefs and traditions,” she said. “I really appreciate Aaron’s work on this show.”
The setting for “Fiddler on the Roof” is Anatevka, a fictional Jewish settlement in Russia, in the year 1905. An example of using historical and cultural research to create appropriate costumes, according to Burns, is to understand details like that the characters would wear their very best clothing for the Sabbath. Everyday clothes are fairly basic, but in addition to dressing appropriately for the Sabbath, everyone will have something special for the wedding scene.
While she makes use of many costumes from the NMP storeroom she has been able to find many skirts, petticoats, boots and other pieces thanks to the Luther college Theatre and Music Departments.
She does rent some things that are difficult or time consuming to make. For “Fiddler on the Roof,” she is renting a few specific items, such as prayer shawls and Sabbath coats.
“It was so exciting to find [period correct] long black coats to rent for half price,” she said.
With the help of several volunteers, Burns will be constructing all the uniforms for the Russian soldiers, head scarves for the women, and most of the shirts, many of the pants, and some of the skirts for the villagers.
Each actor is measured during one of the first rehearsals, and Burns makes detailed spreadsheets with everyone’s shoe and hat sizes, waist, chest, neck, inseam, arm length, etc. to use when she goes searching for costumes.
She also keeps notes with her on who needs what article of clothing, so she can look for pieces wherever she goes.
“The best part of costuming the show is getting to know every single person involved. Even people in the show don’t always get to know everyone.”
Surrounded by music, people, stacks of boots, and racks and racks of costumes, Burns is clearly in her element.
Tickets are available online at newminowaplayers.org, at the high school box office June 13 and 20 from 3 to 5 p.m., June 14 to 16 and June 21 and 23, from 6 to 8 p.m., and at the Winneshiek Farmers Market in Decorah June 18, 22 and 25.