Dazzling Duds

Theatre Memphis honors costume designer Andre Bruce Ward.

From the time he was 10 years old, maybe even younger, Andre Bruce Ward knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. He'd sit in a darkened cinema and watch movie stars glitter across the screen and he'd think: I want to make their costumes. He was especially inspired by Betty Grable and her lavish outfits in such musicals as Springtime in the Rockies and Down Argentina Way.

Since then, he's never sewn a stitch for a starlet, but he's done what he calls "the better thing." As costume designer since 1977 for Theatre Memphis, Ward designs and crafts clothing for theatrical musicals such as Oklahoma and Camelot and historical productions, including Hamlet and Cyrano de Bergerac. In appreciation for his "extraordinary artistry and dedication," Theatre Memphis has created a hardback volume filled with his drawings titled Andre: Thirty Years of Costume Design at Theatre Memphis. The 108-page book, which will cost $30, makes its debut at a cabaret celebration on Friday, November 21st.

A Michigan native, Ward studied at various schools and worked in costume houses and theatres in New York City and Richmond, Virginia, before moving to Memphis in 1977. "I always say that I came here thinking I'd stay for a couple of years then go elsewhere," he smiles. "But I sort of fell in love with the building and the people, and I've stayed all these years."

In conceiving the costume designs, Ward researches the period in which the play is set. He also collaborates with the director, as well as the set and lighting designers, to develop a color scheme and a style. Then he shops for the fabrics at local retailers including Hancock's and Wal-Mart. He recently found a new place in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he "made a haul" for Cyrano, which opens in February. "The ladies laugh and say I can find things they look for but never see," he comments. He takes pride in being frugal and producing the clothes under budget. "I make less look like more," he adds. Finally, with the help of an assistant, a seamstress, and "four very faithful volunteers," Ward starts making the costumes as soon as the cast is chosen and each person has been measured.

Some productions pose challenges, including Cats. "I had to learn a lot of new processes and techniques I'd never used before," he says. "The armbands and leggings were all knitted and the unitards were painted and dyed and drawn on with magic markers." And for Brigadoon, he says he gratefully took the advice of an expert who knew how to make kilts so that they'd hang and move properly.

Among the productions for which he especially enjoyed designing costumes are Camelot and Hamlet. "I've done Camelot five times total, and twice here. I believe it's the largest, with 120 costumes in all." He prefers period shows because "people wore such wonderful clothes then," says Ward. "Now people wear slacks and a top. It's not very exciting to design a whole stageful of people in those kinds of clothes. But dresses with trains and hats with feathers? Now, that's pretty exciting. I just really love the glitter and the sparkle."

Ward enjoys knowing that his costumes can spark young performers. "Once they get their costumes on," he says, "they'll tell me they can really feel their characters come to life. I've had many wonderful moments of feeling that what I do helped them."

As for the book that will be unveiled at the Theatre Memphis gala later this month, Ward says, "I'm thrilled to death. Theater is such an ephemeral thing. We work so hard to get these shows together, then three weeks later you put the costumes in storage and there's nothing left but the photographs. Now there'll be a more permanent record of my work." 

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