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Designing woman

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  • | 5:00 a.m. January 12, 2011
"I like to think of myself as a fabric engineer," Kaylene McCaw says. "You give me something soft, and I can make it into almost anything."
"I like to think of myself as a fabric engineer," Kaylene McCaw says. "You give me something soft, and I can make it into almost anything."
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Kaylene McCaw is having a good clothes day, the kind of clothes day that would send any costume designer into a giddy fit.

Someone delivered a bag of hats, coats and dresses to The Players Theatre earlier in the day. And not just any bag of hats, coats and dresses — these pieces were vintage.

Consequently, McCaw, a costume designer at The Players Theatre, spent the morning modeling outfits for the staff, parading around the lobby in 1950s derby caps and fur-collared coats.

“One of the perks of the job is getting to play dress-up for a living,” McCaw says. “We get a lot of garbage donations, but it’s worth picking through for the jewels.”

To a woman such as McCaw — an avid Goodwill shopper whose wardrobe mostly consists of funky finds from second-hand stores — the donation was especially exciting.

“I’m frugal,” McCaw says. “It’s a big part of who I am and what I do. A lot of designers come in here expecting to buy everything. Our budgets are basically nothing. My job is to make a nickel look like $500.”

And that she does with almost every costume she creates, from the lavish Edwardian-era gowns of “Titanic” to the drab housecoats and kerchiefs of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It helps that McCaw is also an actress.

She knows how challenging it is to move on stage in an ill-fitting costume. She knows how a piece of fabric can transform you into a character and transport you to another place and time.

She experienced this as a teen when she was cast as the title character in “Little Red Riding Hood” and when, in 2009, she shaved her head to play the part of cancer-stricken Vivian Bearing in “Wit.”

“I’ve had beautiful experiences where someone might be having a hard time feeling a character and they put on the clothes and suddenly get it,” says McCaw, who joined The Players staff eight years ago. “That’s why I wish people would still get dressed up to go to the theater. You take it more seriously. There’s something grand about it.”

McCaw grew up in Walla Walla, Wash., where she served as the president of her high school’s drama club and performed in community theater productions staged in her hometown meeting house.

As a girl, her mother taught her the basics of sewing. The skill served McCaw well as she got older and her personal style became more bohemian.

“I’ve always had tastes that were different,” McCaw says. “If I couldn’t find what I wanted at the mall, I could always hit the sewing machine and make it myself.”

The conversation returns to McCaw’s love of thrift-store shopping — again. Scanning her outfit, she points out that everything, excluding her shoes, came from a Goodwill, the exact location of which she won’t reveal.

“It’s a secret goldmine,” she says of the store. “I want to keep it that way.”

McCaw is currently costuming “Big: The Musical,” which opens Jan. 13, at The Players. According to the designer, the musical is “a simple show,” requiring three costumes for each actor in the 30-person cast.

Her teenaged daughters, both students at Booker High School, are performing in the show.

She gestures toward a heap of colorful Converse sneakers, which she borrowed recently from Florida
Studio Theatre for the “Big” kids to wear during ensemble dances.

“I prefer shows where the clothes make the character come to life,” McCaw says. “When the clothes are perfect, people just believe they belong to the actors. It can be frustrating because you want people to notice your work, but you never want the costumes to get in the way.”


Kaylene McCaw weighs in on her top-two costume pet peeves.

“It’s overrated. I have a personal hatred of Velcro. It’s not as strong as everybody thinks. It’s a beautiful thing when used properly, but in most cases I use old-fashioned snaps and buttons.”

Inflated egos
“People get insane. I have to keep reminding them that they have to look like their character, even if the character isn’t pretty. Some actors feel since they dress themselves every day, they have the authority to dress themselves in shows.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]