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Civic Players' vast costume collection a valuable resource

Civic Players' vast costume collection a valuable resource

Theater group has more than 50,000 pieces
Civic Players' vast costume collection a valuable resource
Joe Fava looks over thousands of costumes in one of three wardrobe rooms at Schenectady Civic Playhouse.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

A glimpse into the Schenectady Civic Players’ closet is enough to make any clotheshorse swoon. 

There are entire rooms dedicated to accessories: Hats from the 1930s, minks from the 1950s, pocket squares from the 1970s and buckets full of handbags from every generation. Entire racks are lined with military clothes and they’re stored right next to racks of voluminous wedding gowns. 

“We have over 50,000 pieces here,” said Joseph Fava, the SCP president.   

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The members of SCP have performed countless shows throughout the theater's 90 years — well, we could count them but who has time — and with each show comes a slew of costumes. 

“If you’re doing a show from the 1890s, you need a certain kind of bow tie,” Fava said.

The collection may seem excessive, but every piece is used at some point or another. Even if the company is performing a show they’ve done years and years ago, the costumes may be completely different. 

Fava once directed a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and placed some of the young actors in costumes from 1910. 

That’s the luxury of having such an extensive collection. 

On the other hand, the responsibility of organizing it all is a feat. 

“Our costume collection is one of the largest ones in the area, in the line of The Costumer, and Joe is the reason,” said Bill Hickman, a long-time actor, and volunteer at SCP. “Joe is instinctively a wonderful collector and organizer, and having that large of a collection really helps us keep down our costs. It’s a great asset for a community theater to have.” 

Fava began organizing it a decade ago after he couldn’t find overalls for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which he was directing at the time. Frustrated after looking through piles and piles of costumes, he went out and bought a few pairs for the actors. 

But a few weeks later, he found several pairs in the collection. Thus, he began to organize and start to tag the entire collection. With the help of the Players, especially Marcia Thomas, the collection was organized in a few years. 

Of course, things have changed again with the expansion of the Players' theater.

Construction started two years ago, connecting two adjacent SCP properties, adding an elevator, and better lighting among other improvements. While the construction is sorely needed — before actors and stagehands had to carry their costumes and other materials from one building to the next — it has disrupted the costume collection.  

“This used to be very organized but because of construction it’s not,” Fava said, with a shake of his head. 
However, Fava still has a good handle on how to get a hold of minks from the 1940s or a muff from the 1930s.

Need a bowler hat or gloves from the 1950s? He can probably find those too. 

Almost 90 percent of the collection is donated, says Fava. After a family member dies, people often donate their loved one's clothes to the Players. 

“We get it and we take care of it. And it’s here forever,” Fava said. 

Of course, it might be altered by Fava or one of the company’s costume designers. 

Many pieces in the collection have been altered over the years. One piece may go from a size 8 flapper dress to a size 6 1960s style mod dress. Reinvention is the nature of theater and of costume design. 

Even the costumes that Fava and other players design and make from scratch (like the beautiful draped dresses and suits featured in SCP’s “The Liar” in 2014) are made so they can be easily altered for the next actor or actress to step into for what’s likely an entirely different production. 

While he’s never taken formal costume design classes, Fava has an eye for how to construct and sew a piece that’s going to look great on stage, and with the SCP collection, he has plenty of material to work with. 

“You never know what you’re going to need,” Fava said, unearthing yet another box of hats.

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