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Little Theatre of Winston-Salem and former middle school partner to serve entire theater community

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The main hallway in the old Hanes-Lowrance Middle School building is lined with period costumes – Ancient Egyptian robes, British Regency gowns, American Roaring ’20s flapper dresses, to name a few.

Actual costumes on mannequins stand sentinel, and detailed sketches of clothing from those periods are tacked to metal locker doors.

“This place is a living mini-museum,” says Philip Powell, executive director of the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem. “We have stuff from the 1800s. We’ve got one of the Reynolds’ tuxedos from 1930. We take the things of the citizens of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and breathe new life into them onstage.”

More than 10,000 pieces of theatrical costuming, including shoes, handbags, and accessories, are stored in four big rooms in clearly labeled boxes, folded on shelves and hanging from racks.

In 2018, when the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem’s home of more than 50 years on Coliseum Drive was sold, its vast costume, props and scenery collection was stashed in a warehouse on First Street, blocks away from the theater’s new headquarters on North Spruce Street.

“It was not ideal, because we were having to pay rent in the commercial realm,” Powell says. It also did not provide a functional space in which to make new costumes.

Now, thanks to a collaboration seemingly made in heaven, the costume shop – also the properties and scene shops – have settled into what feels like a stable home. In return for that stability, the shops act as a rental facility for other theaters in the Winston-Salem area and as a lending library or for the schools in the Winston-Salem Forsyth County system.

Hanes-Lowrance had been mostly unused since 2015 when Powell got in touch with Forsyth County Commissioner Don Martin to find out what kind of space might be available for the theater to use. Martin put Powell in touch with Darrel Walker, assistant superintendent for the school system.

“We are so thankful for the partnership,” Powell says. “This enables us to get close to back where we were before we left Coliseum. The school system has been great.”

The feeling is mutual.

“Little Theatre of Winston-Salem has been an excellent resource for our theater teachers and our Summer Enrichment Theatre Program. We are grateful for their services and for supporting our students,” says Andrew D. Craft, director K-12 Arts Education and Summer Enrichment Programs, Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools.

“We provided more than $3,000 worth of costumes and props for free for the school system’s Summer Enrichment Program,” Powell says. “And we provide $30,000 or $40,000 worth costumes, props and scenery to drama programs and events throughout the year that they would have otherwise had to pay for or do without. That’s how we pay out rent.

“Now, they are reaching out to us for internships. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Because they have the space now, the Little Theatre can hold sewing and costuming classes, he says. “We are seeking to expand our partnership with the school system. We can help teachers out by just being there.”

Little Theatre volunteers and board members spent the COVID lock-down period, what would have been the theater’s 2020-2021 season, moving into Hanes-Lowrance and organizing their vast costume collection, according to Tara Raczenski, the costume shop manager.

“We’ve made good use of the existing space,” Raczenski says.

Raczenski was pulling costumes for the musical “Guys and Dolls” when theaters nationwide shut down for COVID. Happily, that show will now be part of the Little Theatre’s 88th season this month.

Raczenski became the shop manager in 2021. She has a bachelor’s degree in drama, theater and film.

“My background is in performance, but I love costumes,” she says. “I was in love with Jane Austen, and when I heard that Little Theatre was doing ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ I volunteered to do anything that was needed.”

She got assigned to costumes and subsequently volunteered and studied for several years with the theater’s longtime costume mistress, Jeannette Brown, who left the role in 2020.

“We hit it off, and she became my mentor,” Raczenski says. “I loved the process, doing the design, building and making. We have a great team of volunteer sewers and makers.”

When a show needs costumes, the director or Powell will reach out to Raczenski. Then she considers her inventory and determines if the show will be “pulled” from existing stock or “built” (made).

Raczenski recently pulled stock for an imaginary Regency era show to demonstrate the process. She set up four mannequins and dressed them from underwear to outerwear using costume pieces that she had on hand.

“I love authenticity,” she says. “Even if the audience can’t see a detail, it can still help the actor get into character.”

When the mannequins were all dressed, it was easy to see which ones looked congruent together and which one would not quite make the cut based on color or texture.

“There are times when the costume is the star,” Raczenski says. “But mostly, you want the costumes to add to the overall look of the show and be historically reasonable.”

Besides providing resources for local theaters and school theater departments, the Little Theatre also rents costumes to the general public for parties and Halloween. Raczenski says a big part of her job is maintaining the inventory and handling rentals and loans.

“It’s so important to have the shop staffed by somebody like Tara who knows the stock and can keep it organized,” Powell says. “It’s not just stuff that we provide but also expertise.

“We are the unseen backbone of how costumes and scenery are distributed in the community. We’re the only shop that has this kind of space. If we lost it, the arts in Winston-Salem would experience a great loss.”

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