Dressing ‘Jane Eyre’

Sara Petersen

Costume designer made everything from nearly nothing in effort to make musical feel authentic

Liz Loar, who plays Blanche Ingram, sings a solo during the first act of Jane Eyre. The musical is based off of the book written in 1847 by Charlotte Bronte. Rachel Kilroy | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

View photos from the show.

Sarah Russell ate by herself during her only break in the empty costume shop.

She had to; “Jane Eyre: The Musical” was premiering in one week, and there was still work to be done.

“This time period is tricky because we don’t have any clothing from this time period,” she said. Charlotte Bronte’s novel was set in the early 19th Century.

Russell, the costume designer for the production opening tonight, is writing her master’s thesis on the work she does.

For each production, the designers try to use costumes they already have and normally pull them out of stock. But they didn’t have many appropriate garments for “Jane Eyre.” Consequently, Russell assembled a lot more costumes and used more rentals than normal.

The show:

“Jane Eyre: The Musical”

Based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte

When: Feb. 20-March 1

Where: E. Turner Stump Theatre

Tickets:Adults, $16; Faculty, Staff, Alumni and seniors, $12; Students, $8

Plot synopsis: Jane is an intelligent, honest and plain English orphan. The production is told through Jane’s eyes and follows her story from her childhood in a strict boarding school to her time as a governess and her love story with her employer, Mr. Rochester.

She made four costumes completely from scratch, three of which are for Jane. Some smaller pieces were also constructed to add to garments pulled from stock.

Russell had to keep in mind that her designs are going to be seen from the stage.

“The closest audience member is going to be about 30 feet away,” she said. “Everything has to be amplified. All of your trim has to be huge; your patterns have to be really big because if you have a teeny-tiny floral, you’re never going to see it.”

Russell also had to be creative to have a complete wardrobe needed for the production.

“There is a giant party scene where all the women are in white. Well, I couldn’t rent white gowns from this time period because nobody has any,” Russell said. “I ended up taking 1950s and 1980s wedding dresses and completely restyling them. We added the giant sleeves; we added the big poof skirts so they would match.”

Russell read “Jane Eyre” for inspiration and for assistance in creating the costumes.

“I started with the book,” she said. “What’s great about the book is that Charlotte Bronte, the author, gives really accurate descriptions in her book. She’ll describe a person for two or three pages, and that really helped.

“It also helps me understand the characters’ motivations and what they’re doing, and I have to be able to think about how that will affect the costume.” Russell said. “It wouldn’t make sense for Jane – even though she’s rich in the end – to wear something extravagant because that’s just not who she is.”

Russell also looked at editions of the book from many different years and the illustrations that accompanied it.

“That was really cool because in the ’20s they were very Art Deco,” she said.”The pictures weren’t really period, but they had a different feeling to them than the historic etchings.”

After her research of the book, Russell studied historic paintings from the time period “Jane Eyre” is set in.

Russell acted all throughout high school and college. When she was in a show her freshman year in college, one of the other cast members who worked in the costume shop asked her if she wanted to help on a Saturday.

“I went in, and I loved it,” Russell said.

She then continued to work in costume design as an extra, fun way to make money during the rest of her undergraduate studies and summer. Then she was offered a chance to acquire a master’s degree in costume design at Kent State.

The theater department chose Russell to work on “Jane Eyre.” She has worked on this project since the end of the last semester and continued to work when school started again. As of Feb. 13, none of the dresses were completed, even though each dress had 100 to 200 hours of work put into it.

“Most of the things we’re building are still being worked on and probably won’t be done until opening night,” Russell said.

Contact performing arts reporter Sara Petersen at [email protected].