Geek Out Over Theater Costumes in Tempe Center for the Arts' "Merely Players"

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Decisions, decisions.

“Should we lop off their heads or leave their heads on?” So went the discussions as Michelle Dock, gallery coordinator for The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts, prepared to open “Merely Players,” an exhibition featuring costumes, design sketches, and a costume shop replica.

“It’s been a funny process,” Dock says. “You can’t have a conversation about mannequins and be appropriate.” For more than a year, she worked with local costume artists and performing art groups to create the exhibition that highlights the visual art inherent in performance art.

Dock knew she’d need to secure mannequins before moving forward with the exhibition, but there were challenges. “Mannequins are terribly expensive,” Dock says. “Even used ones can run several hundred dollars apiece.”

So Dock turned to the Tempe History Museum, hoping their warehouse might have some mannequins tucked away in storage. Instead, she found shelves of mannequin parts – and started calculating how many bodies she might be able to build with them.

“We were able to get eight or 10 mannequins from the museum, but they were in awful shape,” Docks says. “None of the parts went together, and they were really nasty and creepy.” But she cobbled them together as best she could, with impressive results.

Phoenix sculptor Brad Konick, who does installation work for The Gallery at TCA, made new stands for the mannequins. That’s when talk of lopping off heads began. “It sounded like a horror movie,” Dock recalls of their discussions at the time. They ended up keeping the heads, realizing that many of the costumes they’d be showing included headpieces.

“Merely Players” includes costumes worn in Arizona Opera, Ballet Arizona, Childsplay, Phoenix Theatre, and Southwest Shakespeare Company productions – plus pieces with cosplay, steampunk and Renaissance themes. Masks by Mesa artist Zarco Guerrero didn’t need mannequins. Instead, they got their own wall. And there's even a steampunk photo booth for the selfie crowd. 

Dock invited performing arts groups with costume shops to participate in planning meetings and provide costumes for the exhibition. Although ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts wasn't able to provide costumes due to its rigorous production schedule, Dock says they attended planning sessions and offered valuable input. 

A couple of factors influenced the costumes you’ll see on view. “Partly it was what was available,” says Dock. “But we also wanted the costumes to tell a story about these organizations.”

In one portion of the gallery, you'll find the replica of a costume shop, complete with costume materials and sewing equipment. Dock credits costume consultants Sandie Tignor and Rebecca Akins, one a retired museum curator and the other a retired costume designer, with helping pull it all together. 

Text panels accompanying featured costumes share details about their creators, and the productions they were created for. Visitors also see images of the costumes being worn during performances, so they get a sense for how costumes contribute to creating compelling characters and settings on the stage.

When it came time to physically set up the show, Dock and her team sometimes encountered mannequins behaving badly. They spent hours dressing a Renaissance Faire mannequin only to have its arm fall off once they lifted it onto a platform for display.

It turns out that dressing mannequins, especially ones donning complicated lace-up corsets, is no easy task. “You really get an appreciation for what it was like back in the day,” Dock says of Renaissance attire. “These costumes are very historically accurate, even down to the undergarments.”

It didn’t help that mannequins and costumes weren’t always compatible size-wise. Sometimes they’d start by dressing a mannequin a tight black t-shirt, then filling it out with cotton batting. “We used certain tricks of the trade,” Dock says.

But once the costumes are in place, she says, the mannequins should disappear. “We want the stars to be the costumes and the designers.”

"Merely Players" continues through May 14. Gallery admission is free. Find more information about the exhibition and related programming on the Tempe Center for the Arts website

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