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Asolo Rep crew catalogs decades of costumes, props

Asolo Repertory Theatre has accumulated more props and costumes than it knows what to do with over the past half-century.


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The curtain is down, and the seats are empty. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on at Asolo Repertory Theatre.

The summer has been a busy time of preparation for upcoming shows, and it’s also provided a chance for Asolo Rep to come to grips with its overflowing supply of props and costumes. David Covach, Asolo Rep’s costume shop manager, has been presiding over a digitization of the company’s holdings so they’ll have a permanent record of what exists in their closets.

It’s like your own personal spring cleaning, but only if you had over 70,000 items of clothing. Asolo Rep’s warehouse-like Koski Production Center — which was originally a Wilson Sporting Goods distribution center — houses decades worth of clothing worn in various productions, and Covach has to keep mental inventory of items he hasn’t used for decades.

“We’ve got every single corner legally that the fire marshal will allow me to cram with something,” says Covach. "There are some costumes in our stock made by artists 60 years ago that are still hanging there and haven't been used for 60 years.”

Think about it. Asolo Repertory Theatre has put on countless shows over the decades.

And if there’s a potential use for a costume down the road, they haven’t thrown it out.

Covach and his assistant have had the hard job of keeping all of that in their mind.

That means vintage suits and dresses, and denim distressed in every form and fashion. Do we have a pink frock from the 1940s? Yes, Covach might say, but then he’d have to go and find it.

David Covach is presiding over a digitization of Asolo Rep's costume inventory. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
David Covach is presiding over a digitization of Asolo Rep's costume inventory. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)

So this summer, he assembled a four-person team to begin digitizing their inventory.

One person would bar-code the item, and another would write down a description. A third person would photograph the item, and then a fourth would do the data entry. If the clothing were related, they'd be entered in together. 

“This summer, I had hoped that we would get close to 20,000 items in, being the first year,” said Covach. “We didn't have quite as much time as I thought we'd have, and we didn't have quite as many people as I thought. Once we got into the job, it takes much longer to do than I ever thought. We ended up probably inputting about 3,000 pieces."

That’s a lot of clothing. But what does it represent in the grand scheme of things?

“Oh, my god, it's a drop in the bucket,” says Covach. “That's like one row in our stock.”

The interesting part is that Covach is in the process of creating more costumes.

He recently spent $20,000 on fabric for the 2023 production of "Three Musketeers," which hasn’t been performed by Asolo Rep since 1995. Covach’s team will make dozens of costumes for the venerable classic, and they still have stuff lying around from the last time they performed it.

Is there irony there? Not really, says Covach.

Even if it’s the same show, a director may want to see a completely different aesthetic. Costumes are sized precisely for the actor that wears them, so they might not have utility to ever be used again for the next cast.

If that’s the case, then why are they hanging onto 60 years worth of clothing?

“It may not be relevant,” Covach says. “But if we can make it look different or add a different feather, it's going to save us $150 here or there. We have all of the raw materials. And that's usually the reason for me saving something if it has the potential. But that’s, of course, what every single hoarder says. ‘I’ll do something with it some day.’ I can tell you that every single costumer that I've ever met has that mentality. They will save three beads in a Ziploc bag.”

Covach says he expects the inventory to take a number of years, and he’s not going to inventory every single sock and shoe. Year by year, though, he wants to get a better picture of everything he has on record, not just in his mind.

“My job before the internet was 10 times worse,” he says. “Or 10 easier because you just went to JoAnn’s and got it. If it wasn't at JoAnn’s, the show didn't have it.”

 

Prop Depot

And if there's chaos in the clothing aisle, it's every bit as wild in the props department.

Production Manager Mike Rodgers recently led the Observer on a tour of the facility, and workers were toiling to create sets for "Opera Colorado." One worker sat inside a boat as he built it out, and others were busy reupholstering furniture.

It can take a year for a set to go from concept to reality, says Rodgers, and that furniture is frequently custom-made for a particular production. But still, Asolo Rep keeps rows and rows of couches, chairs and other furniture items.

"My boss likes to say that it's organized like Walmart; there’s a chair aisle, a couch aisle, a toaster aisle," says Rodgers. "It would take probably years to get it all digitized and cataloged. And tracking it would still be a nightmare."

For now, the staffers are on the honor system, he says. Put everything back where you found it. 

Asolo Rep's Koski Production Center is not just a place for creating new sets; it's storage for the theater's props, costumes and furniture. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
Asolo Rep's Koski Production Center is not just a place for creating new sets; it's storage for the theater's props, costumes and furniture. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)

Frank Paul, Asolo Rep's senior property master, spent the time during the COVID-19 shutdown trying to familiarize himself with everything in the inventory, and he estimates it will be a six- or eight-year project to make a detailed list.

"You can't put a bar code on a fork," he says. "We have vases and forks and cutlery and dishes for days. I mean, there's just so many things that are parts of so many things. We have lamp parts — I can't put a bar code on a lamp part.

"When I started with 'Sweeney Todd,' I took two coffee cans and two gooseneck lamps, and I made train lanterns out of them. Now I don't have two gooseneck lamps or two coffee cans, I have two train lanterns I may never use again."

Paul says he'll never know everything that's in the inventory, but he wants to make sure that if he lets another organization borrow something that he has a perfect record of what's gone out the door. So they take pictures and they make a list, and then they make a packet both for themselves and for the organization borrowing the items.

Part of the job, says Rodgers, is taking the set and making it exactly like the director wants it. That could mean taking an old prop and turning it into something new, or it could mean making something smaller or putting wheels on it.

That process is never-ending, and it could literally be an ongoing concern all the way until the opening curtain. That's why it helps to have a large treasury of things; because you never know what will come in handy next.

Down the line, when the next phase of the Koski Center expansion happens, Covach's clothes will be moved to a different space. Paul is already eyeing those rows and hoping he'll get to place more props in them.

"David was like, 'What are you going to do with all that space once all the costumes move out?'" says Paul. "We're going to get more stuff. I don't have to play Jenga down here. I feel like that game Parking Lot where you like take this and move it over here so that you can get the thing behind it, then you have to move that back into that spot so that you can pull it out."

 

author

Spencer Fordin

Spencer Fordin, the Observer's A+E editor, hails from New York and graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1999. Fordin previously worked as a sportswriter for MLB.com for 16 seasons and as a features reporter for The Cayman Compass on Grand Cayman.