Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Costume designer retires after 23 years

In the basement of Myers Fine Arts, room 19 is the costume shop. It’s the same room where Marie Barber stitched, sewed, hemmed and mended costumes for the Plattsburgh State Theatre Department for the last 23 years. Now, she’s officially retired.

  An alumna who graduated in 1982, Barber left Plattsburgh and became the resident costumer for the summer stock theater program at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. 

After a couple years, Barber came back to Plattsburgh, assisted on a student production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” got married and took a break for about 10 years. 

She was hired in 1996 as PSUC theatre department costume designer and full-time technical support staff, replacing the then retired costumer Ruth Kline whom she first worked under as a freshman.

But within the last couple years, Barber experienced metastatic breast cancer recurrence, causing back pain and other health-related problems. She retired Jan. 26 before the spring semester began.

“I knew I was leaving before I told the kids,” Barber said. “It’s not that I’m ready to leave the job. I’m ready to take care of my health.”

Despite this, Barber still visits campus for a few hours two to three times a week, cleaning, filing and sorting through paperwork and costume items, as the department prepares for its next production.

In addition to running the costume shop, her main job consisted of not only helping students to design and create costumes but also managing and maintaining the department’s extensive collection. Many rooms beneath Hartman Theatre are dedicated to wooden set pieces, large scene canvases, chairs and furniture, costumes, hats, shoes, masks, wigs, makeup and accessories collected over the years.

“It’s been fun playing with it through the years,” Barber said. “But now I have to let it go.” 

Barber used to teach the costume lab classes in the department, which is now taught by Associate Theater Professor Erika Guay, who directed “A Peter Rabbit Tale” last weekend. Barber said working with students and building strong friendships is what she loved most about her time at PSUC. 

“I’ve always loved theater, but there’d be times when you start a semester, and you feel overwhelmed because you know the workload is going to face you,” Barber said. “All it takes is one student walking through the door, and I put my happy face on.” 

One alumna, Margaret Dimock-Dumar, worked with Barber after graduating in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in theater. Dimock-Dumar said Barber recruited her to PSUC when she saw her perform in a high school musical, and the two worked together through Dimock-Dumar’s undergraduate years.

Dimock-Dumar said Barber always managed to see the bright side of things when the job wasn’t always stress-free.

“Even when we’re doing ridiculous at zero-dark-thirty trying to get stuff finished, we always managed to have fun,” Dimock-Dumar said. “You can get burnt out and unhappy with things quickly, but I never felt that way working with her.”

Dimock-Dumar said Barber went the extreme mile, on costuming and the knowledge behind each piece in the department’s collection, to create a rich and vibrant character on stage.

“She not only understood what the items needed to do their job for the character, but she really had a great depth of the history of the show and the little details that can be easily overlooked when you’re short on time,” Dimock-Dumar said.

Technical Director for the Theatre Department Ben Wright helps students learn different aspects of technical theater, such as constructing scenery for the department’s productions. He said he enjoys Barber’s spirit and energy, and her work has set a high standard on costuming within the department.

“We’ve always gotten along really well,” Wright said. “She’s always helped me try to move things forward, and she’s been adaptable to changes that I’ve wanted to make or try to make.” 

In Barber’s absence, Wright said the department is still looking for a costume designer. In the meantime, other department faculty and about five work-study students have all hands on deck working in the costume shop for future productions. 

“We’re all just kind of trying to work together to get it done,” Wright said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a replacement next year for her. We’d be totally sunk without that position.”

While Barber feels the department and all the people in it are a second home to her, she’s ready to relax and pass the torch to someone else.

“[The stress] is like water under the bridge now,” she said. “I don’t have to hold onto that. Just the good memories.”

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