Sew On: Karen Stacy creates costumes for community theater

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Walking past photographs of “Mary Poppins,” “Cinderella,” “Frozen” and “ELF,” Karen Stacy stepped into a room lined with bins containing aprons, scarves, pantaloons and fabric.

“Here is where I live,” the 67-year-old Stacy said, motioning to the costume headquarters for Decatur’s community theater group Dream Weavers housed at Central United Methodist Church.

Over the past four years, Stacy, whose previous acting experience consisted solely of portraying one of the three men in a tub in the nursery rhyme “Rub-a-Dub-Dub” in third grade, has contributed to and overseen the costumes of 14 productions.

Using her tools — a sewing machine and hot glue gun — Stacy has created a zebra hat and tuxedo pants for Marty in “Madagascar Jr.,” dresses for Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly,” fairy costumes for Oberon and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a gown for Cinderella in “Cinderella,” an elf outfit for Buddy in “ELF,” “Sesame Street”-inspired fish costumes for “Finding Nemo” and a tentacle dress for Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.”

Stacy, who as a child loathed sewing, never dreamed she would be creating costumes.

“My mother tried to teach me to sew when I was young. I started around 11. She was a master seamstress. If I got one stitch out of line, she made me rip it out. I learned to hate it,” Stacy said. “Now I’m learning to love it. I love the creative side of it.”

Stacy credited her 13-year-old granddaughter for her involvement with community theater.

“My granddaughter auditioned for ‘Frozen’ in 2020, so I was here with her for rehearsals. I realized Paulette (Morgan) needed help and was running behind on the show. I had inherited all of my mother’s sewing materials and they were just sitting there. I told Paulette, ‘I can come to your house and you can show me what you need done.’ She said, ‘OK,’” Stacy said.

So began Stacy’s mentorship under Morgan, who served as the lead seamstress for Dream Weavers and Bank Street Players, from 2015 until her death in 2021.

After assisting Morgan with the “Frozen” costumes, Stacy assisted with “Snow White.”

“With ‘Snow White,’ Paulette made the costumes for all the main characters and I did everybody else. She taught me so much,” Stacy said. “When she died, there was nobody left except me. That’s the problem we are having right now. Sewing seems to be a dying art so there is nobody to help. People don’t have to be experienced seamstresses to do this. I certainly wasn’t.”

Susan Thompson, who restarted Dream Weavers with Deanna Knox in 2017, has watched Stacy grow into the lead costumer role.

“Her ability to work with show designers and contribute to the overall look and feel of a show increases the artistic value of our performances,” Thompson said. “The time, thought, planning and effort put into producing a cohesive look is not easy, but she has become quite skilled in achieving that.”

Stacy hazards to guess how much time she spends on costumes for each production. From discussing the designs with the directors to measuring the cast members to pulling items from the clothing closet to searching thrift stores and yard sales (she has created outfits from dust ruffles and curtain valences) to sewing and altering the costumes, the time is incalculable.

During the weeklong freeze in January, Stacy would wake up at 7 a.m. every morning and sew until 9 p.m. and only completed a portion of the costumes for “Finding Nemo.”

“Every show I do, I sit there and think I’m never going to do this again because it is so stressful. But when you see the lights come on and the curtain goes up and the music starts, I cry. Every time I cry. It’s like giving birth. After all the pain and again, there’s the baby and it’s beautiful. Just like childbirth, you forget the pain and say, ‘Yes, I’ll do the next one,’” Stacy said.

Some of Stacy’s stand-out creations include Nemo’s orange overalls, which she created from a women’s size 24 orange jeans, Ursula’s tentacled octopus outfit based around a dress she found at a thrift shop, and Cinderella’s tear-away dress, which transformed from a ragged outfit to a ball gown.

“You know the moment, it is when the fairy godmother goes ‘Bippity boppity boo.’ We needed a quick change and we didn’t want Cinderella to leave the stage for a long time. We had to think a lot about how to do this,” Stacy said.

The solution: Place the underside of the ballgown under the ragged outfit so it looked like a slip and use Velcro to attach items to the outfit.

“When it came time, we put fog on the stage. Cinderella whirled into the fog and there was someone standing off stage that ripped the ragged part off. As she twirled out of the fog, there was someone else that had a big skirt and crinoline to attach to Cinderella, who twirled into it. When she came out of the fog, she was in the ballgown. The audience loved it,” Stacy said.

Another of Stacy’s favorite productions was “Mary Poppins,” which she worked on with Morgan.

“When we came out after the show to meet with the audience, people were asking where we were going next. They thought we were a traveling show. It makes you feel good,” Stacy said. “Decatur is so very lucky. We have some amazingly talented and creative people here.”

When creating the costumes, Stacy considers the thickness of the fabric to ensure the stage lights do not shine through the costume, the length of the outfits so the actors do not trip, contrasting colors to make the costumes pop and tailoring.

“The main thing for costumes is to consider what it looks like from every seat in the house. You’ve got to think about the person sitting on the front row as well as the person sitting in the balcony,” Stacy said. “I’m still learning. Every production, I learn more. Each show gets better and better.”

Along with Stacy, a six-member team of volunteers helps assemble and organize the costumes.

“This is not a one-man show. There are others making sure the actors have shoes, socks, belt, bow ties, whatever they need, to complete their looks. I do most of the sewing, but I’m teaching them how to do simple things,” Stacy said.

Stacy hopes to organize classes focused on teaching beginning sewing techniques, such as sewing up bloomers, running elastic and sewing on buttons.

“I want to find people that want to learn and be part of the theater community. If you don’t know how to sew, I will teach you. If you do know how to sew and want to volunteer to make just one costume, anything helps,” Stacy said.

Dream Weavers, like other community theater groups, relies on volunteers to stage productions.

“Our organization is powered by volunteers,” Thompson said. “Dream Weavers has the added element of working with children, so, lots of times, our volunteers are grandparents of cast members. Many times, they volunteer their help on the show their child is in and that’s that. But, even more, they help that first time, enjoy it so much and come back for more. We are constantly looking for volunteers, seamstresses and carpenters.”

Upcoming community theater productions include:

“Newsies” by Hartselle-based College Street Players. Shows are June 20-22 at Hartselle High.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Dream Weavers. Shows are July 12-14 at the Princess Theatre in downtown Decatur.

“Matilda the Musical” by Bank Street Players. Shows are July 26-28 at the Princess Theatre.