Catherine Esera, cutter/draper for the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, creates the costumes for the upcoming play "The Trip to Bountiful" before the actors show up for the first rehearsal.

Catherine Esera, cutter/draper for the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, creates the costumes for the upcoming play "The Trip to Bountiful" before the actors show up for the first rehearsal. (STEVEN GEORGES, Daily Pilot / October 11, 2011)

Actress Lynn Milgrim will step onto the main stage at South Coast Repertory on Friday night as Mrs. Carrie Watts.

To inhabit the role of the protagonist in Horton Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful," Milgrim will don an old-fashioned lavender cotton dress. The play is about a middle-aged Texas woman traveling on a bus in the 1950s in search of her hometown in the American heartland.

"A Trip to Bountiful" is a work of fiction, but the dress has a true story to tell that the SCR production won't reveal to audiences as it previews throughout the week and officially opens on Oct. 28.

To help the actress bring Foote's story to life, at least five pairs of female hands formed an assembly line that designed and made the dress under a tight deadline.

Mrs. Carrie's dress is just one piece in a wardrobe of period costumes that will clothe the characters in "A Trip to Bountiful." And it is only one of the elements in the play, like the props and the sets, that the theater company mostly built from scratch inside the specialized workshops at its Costa Mesa home.

"The whole reason we're here is to help to tell the story of the play," said Amy Hutto, manager for the past 15 years of SCR's in-house costume shop.

"We do it through visuals, the actors do it through movement and words, but we're all reaching for the same goal of telling a story together," she added.


Inside the shop

The SCR Costume Shop is downstairs in the theater company's warren of a basement. The shop is a large room populated by sewing machines, tape measures, needles, spindles of string and rolls of cloth in an assortment of fabrics and colors, as well as mannequins in various states of dress or undress.

During a visit to the shop on a recent Tuesday, the inert dummies seemed to outnumber the four women who were working away on costumes and other clothing accessories that would dress the cast of "A Trip to Bountiful."

Three full-time staffers — Hutto, cutter/draper Catherine Esera, and Laurie Donati — were in the room with a freelancer, Melody Brocious. She was assisting the costume designer, Angela Calin, who was off-site that day. A fourth full-time staffer, Bert Henert, the only man in Hutto's department, works upstairs in a wardrobe room. He is responsible for washing and maintaining each costume and its custom-tailored duplicate, and mending any tears or fixing any buttons that might come off in mid-show.

Off to the side, one of the mannequins wore Mrs. Carrie's lavender dress.

Hutto leaned over a set of renderings that Calin had sketched for this and other costumes in the play. The colorful drawings were a fashionista's fantasy. They resembled images from a fashion show, circa the 1950s.

The actress Milgrim was scheduled to come in that afternoon to try on the dress.

"We will have a fitting with the actor and make any changes that may need to happen so that, when we go into the fabric, we've figured most of that out," Hutto said, as a sewing machine hummed in the background.

"You know, 'cause it may be, 'Oh, the sleeve should be a little shorter to look nice on this person,' or 'the neckline should be a little higher….'"

And because actors and actresses tend to be a transient bunch who only show up in the run-up to a given production, the players have to have their measurements taken on site. Their waist, chest, neck and hem lines can expand or shrink with the years and the changing seasons and climates. Which leaves Hutto and her staffers with a narrow window for building and making adjustments to the costumes.

Because the workload can be immense, Hutto at times has to hire more freelancers and contracted workers to help out with costume-making.

On the day of the visit, Oct. 12, Hutto and her crew were fresh off building some 70 Victorian period pieces for SCR's production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."