An (Email) Conversation with the Founders of the Costume Collective and Next Stage

By Gaea
Published January 2022

The Twin Cities is home to a rich, deep, and vibrant community of theaters, theater artists, and technicians. We are also home to a lot of single use sets, duplicated costumes, and theatrical waste. The Costume Collective and Next Stage are trying to change that.

The Costume Collective is a group of costumers who are creating a rental market, training venue, and skill sharing platform for costumes and costuming in the Twin Cities. They aim to fill the niche left by the closure of the the Guthrie’s Costume Rentals Warehouse, but also to do much more to support the local theater community. 

Next Stage is the result of our collective frustration with how ecologically unsustainable theatrical practices are. Next Stage has set their goal to be a zero waste organization that can reuse, repurpose, and recycle theatrical sets into other sets, art panels, and other goods. 

Below, the founders of these organizations answer a few questions.

1) How did your organization get started? What was the point at which it went from a pipe dream to an idea with actions and energy behind it? 

Costume Collective

Kathy Kohl and Andrea Gross: Local costume designers and technicians had been meeting as Costume Enclave once a month for five years, discussing how we could support each other and learn about issues that affected us and our work, as well networking through socializing — important for costumers, who often work in isolation. We also dreamed of establishing a shared work, meeting, and storage space for costumers but couldn’t find the time to act on it. 

Early in the pandemic, we were surprised & saddened when The Guthrie announced the closure of Costume Rentals.

In response to the racial uprisings of 2020, we talked a lot about the number of empty spaces we were seeing in our industry. The perceptions of requirements for terminal degrees and higher education, the unpaid or underpaid internships that are often an entrance to costume work as a career make it an extremely privileged place, even as we perceive theatre to be a progressive and welcoming field.

So we dreamt big: to be able to provide costume rentals to organizations and individuals all over the country (as Costume Rentals had), and finally, to build that shared work space where we could support one another’s endeavors, teach our skills, and learn from others. We dreamt about all the things that access and accessibility could mean, and out of the Costume Enclave emerged a subcommittee of roughly a dozen people self-selected to pursue the idea of The Costume Collective.

Next Stage

Sara Herman and Sadie Ward: In the spring of 2021, Sara Herman started organizing meetings to talk about a theatrical rental and reuse store as a mission-driven organization to reduce the amount of theatrical waste that goes into landfills. A series of conversations were held, and we realized enough people thought this was a good idea, that it could come to fruition. I think there was also a collective recognition that with our expertise we could make a contribution towards the social change that needs to happen to impact climate change and the time is now.

2) What prompted you personally to be a part of this group? Why is it important to the community? Why is it important to you? 

Next Stage

Trevor Mueller-Hegel: It was something I had tried to do by myself with no training. As a group of individuals with different areas of focus, this is the only way it could work. It’s important to the community because it can significantly decrease the waste theatre companies naturally produce as well as be an epicenter for being a scenic/educational resource for TDs, carpenters, and theatre companies both large and small. This can help promote safety, environmental protection, and reduce the cost of materials which *should* allow theatres to spend more on the salaries of these individuals.

Sarah Herman: As a designer and freelance painter, I got tired of seeing so much useful scenery and materials go into the dumpster. So much of it had potential of being used by other industries. For years I would look at the raw scrap materials scene shops threw away and think to myself “those would be great for an artist to use.” I’m not faulting those shops; they are just not in the business of reclaiming materials for other purposes. So, during the pandemic when work was nonexistent, I spent several months thinking of an infrastructure that could create a theatrical circular economy. Without the pandemic, we would not be here.

Sadie Ward: We are all a part of this [climate change] problem and solution. During our conversations with Next Stage, I also started the Minneapolis Chapter of the Broadway Green Alliance called the Minneapolis Green Theatre Alliance. I recognized that people are interested in green theatrical choices beyond scenic designers/artists. It’s like Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It would have been easier to just not do theatre, but that wouldn’t have created the kind of momentum needed to change the industry.

Costume Collective

Eleanor Schanilec: There’s a certain expectation for costume freelancers to provide their own workspace and basic materials, often doing so as a team of one. This can be isolating in such a collaboration-based field. I believe that it’s necessary to stabilize the field by removing that expectation providing space, resources, and a reliable community. Additionally, being fresh in my career, I’ve been able to share my perspective on how to best support new generations of costumers, while also learning from the amazing community formed around the idea of The Costume Collective.

Kathy Kohl: Because I believe we all feel isolated at times during production, I felt the need to gather together costume-makers to celebrate their skills and experiences, to support and help pass along knowledge gained over the years, to describe what didn’t work, to provide a way to network. Because of this isolation, the costume community has been loosely tacked together rather than tightly woven! Many of us wanted more connection with other costume folks.

Andrea Gross: I look for community everywhere I go. I look for places where I can be a part of a solution, and I felt welcomed by this group to take on leadership around that. It’s important to me that we use this as a tool to broaden the spectrum of stories being told.

3) What are your goals for your organization? Short term? Long term? 

Costume Collective

Kathy Kohl: Here’s what I’m thinking now (but know there’ll be additions).
Stage One:

  • get the space ready!
  • set up costume rental business and costume shop ASAP (at first on a “pardon our mess” basis)
  • offer reasonably-priced rentals of these beautiful costumes to the general public as well as to theaters and other event-makers
  • market our excitement of having Next Stage sharing this space with us for a one-stop theatre resource of costumes and set pieces
  • work toward less waste

Stage Two:

  • make shop space available to costume-makers for large projects, meeting place, sharing of knowledge and ideas
  • community outreach and support

Stage Three:

  • set up a collective clothing recycling department
  • develop all of the above stages

Andrea Gross: Short term, my goals are for us to create a welcoming, affordable, organized place for people to find the things they need (if, or especially, if they don’t know what that is). I want us to remain curious about what this organization could mean or be and I want us to remain nimble and responsive to our community.

Next Stage

Trevor Mueller-Hegel: Short term is to get people using our service. This will allow us to show how this circular economy can really work. The founders have little desire to make oodles of money from this; we know there’s no money in the theatre world here. What we do want is to make a difference for as many theatres AND professionals as possible and to help steer the course to a sustainable tomorrow. 

Sadie Ward and Sarah Herman: In the long term, we hope to see quantifiable change within the St. Paul/Minneapolis Theatre community in how we design and build shows to reduce our waste. We want people to think about the single-use nature of most theatre items, and how they can make different choices. We want to help theatres increase their impact with their audience while reducing their impact on the planet.

4) What does sustainability look like for this organization? 

Next Stage

Sadie Ward and Sarah Herman: In the simplest terms, we hope to save as much material from the landfill as possible.

Our ultimate goal would be to be a zero-waste organization, but that may take some time to achieve. We hope to achieve B-Corp status at some point in the future. We also hope to partner with other zero-waste focused organizations that help us with our own blind spots.

It is also important for us to make sure that people within the organization are taken care of. Most of us have experienced unsustainable employment practices, that none of us are interested in perpetuating. Internally, we want to create a flexible mission driven organization that takes care of its staff. Externally, we want to help designers in creating a sustainable work model and ethic to avoid burn out by providing reused circular economy options and a safe workspace.

We recognized the importance of community for an idea like this to work. We want to make sure people can be involved at whatever level they have the ability to commit. The business has a couple of different facets to make it viable:

  • Theatrical Set and Prop Rentals
  • Creating art panels out of reclaimed materials
  • Strike Force – We will haul away your scenery instead of using a dumpster.
  • Scene shop rental with days that are open at a pay-what-you-can to the community.

Costume Collective

Andrea Gross: I think the obvious is the recycling and upcycling that a stock of this size makes possible. But the thing I am most proud of about this project is the collective way we’ve researched, discussed, and made every decision as it’s come up. The human sustainability piece is huge. Being able to duck out to tech a show, or tend to family, or care for ourselves, and have the rest of the Collective carry the work forward and then seamlessly rejoin the effort is profound. I really can’t say enough about how moving and encouraging it is to navigate so many new things as a business in a setting that is genuinely collaborative.

Eleanor Schanilec: Answered well by Andrea, but I’ll also add that we’ve ensured the location is accessible via bus from multiple directions in the Twin Cities. The centralization of such a large amount of costuming resources cuts down on transportation needs, and also enables sharing of reusable tools, eliminating the need for each of us have access to our own surplus of supplies.

5) What is your favorite thing that the org is doing or has planned for the near future?

Costume Collective

Andrea Gross: Watching the physical space we’ve found evolve from an empty warehouse to a creative, generative space is amazing. I cannot wait to welcome the public in to see the scale of what we’ve accomplished and to tell us what they need from us so we can continue building community.  

Eleanor Schanilec: Creating a dye space and a paint room in our building! Even in a lot of theaters with costuming spaces, there isn’t a full set up for this process. Now that it’s winter too, I’m really looking forward to not painting on my back steps.

Next Stage

Sadie Ward: I love that we are saving off-cut material and creating hard surface art panels.

We are also hoping that our website can become a rental platform, so that people can consign items with us. This can create a central location for people to post their items that are rentable but sit unused in a dark room somewhere.

I’m also excited about our scene shop. It will be rentable, but we also hope to have community days that are free/affordable for people to use the shop.

Sara Herman:  I’m excited about all aspects of the business, of course! But to start with the reuse/reclaimed store is something I’m proud of. We want to make it easier to repurpose materials and help artists/designers to find weird and funky items to incorporate into their art. It is a physical representation of the circular economy we are creating. Think Axman for theater people!

I’m also loving the community spirit that has sprouted around this idea. We’ve had a lot of fantastic donations and people interested in learning more and seeing how they can help. I think a lot of people have had time over the pandemic to ask themselves what is really important to them and making decisions in an equitable and ethical way is one of them.

Trevor Mueller-Hegel: Honestly, it’s so much smarter than anything I had come up with in my 600 sq ft shop. We work together and we listen to each other. There is so much potential in every step of this process. The only thing we need is for people to trust us, and use us. 

6) What’s the best way to get in touch and stay up to date on what’s going on?

Next Stage

Website: nextstagemarket.com

Facebook (Next Stage): Next Stage Rental and Market | Facebook

Facebook (MGTA): Minneapolis Green Theatre Alliance | Facebook

Instagram: @nextstagemarket

Etsy: NextStageMarket | Etsy

Costume Collective

https://thecostumecollectivemn.com/

7) What else do you want people to know about this new organization you are creating? 

Costume Collective

Eleanor Schanilec: This process is very collaborative and open, so if you want to be a part of it, you simply ought to ask. Also, we have a volunteer system set up converting hours of work into free rentals. Iif you’re interested in helping us out in a smaller capacity, look out for volunteer opportunities in the near future.

Kathy Kohl: We’re local people who can’t wait to welcome you into the field that we love. We’ll be glad to offer costume guidance if you request, but will encourage improvisation! We are thrilled to be part of the Nordeast community!

Next Stage

Sadie Ward and Sara Herman: We hope people see that we are a mission-driven organization and that by donating and shopping with us, people are contributing to a larger cultural change for the arts and theatre community.

Trevor Mueller-Hegel: We’re here to help be a part of the new world of theatre after the pandemic. We understand we’re not going to magically appear after the pandemic is “over.” We’re going to help theatre return to the best of our ability and help support people as they reclaim their art and we emerge from our collective performance hibernation.  

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