Talk Story: Esther, Poppy and Barbara

Esther Manning is the imaginative one — the creator who can construct costumes that are more like props.

Need a dragon for the play “Shrek”? Esther is on it, no problem. Its eyes and head will move, its mouth will flex, all because someone will be inside the life-sized monster, controlling it. It’s more construction than costume, but make no mistake, the show can’t go on without it.

“I don’t take boring ones,” the Puhi resident said, laughing, of the assignments she likes to take on. “That’s not me.”

Barbara Green is the elegant seamstress, the designer who handcrafts gowns fit for a queen. Whether it’s for Belle, from “Beauty and the Beast,” or a real-life Miss Hawaii contestant, like Miss Paradise Kauai, Green is the fine eye and delicate finger who stitches dresses fit for royalty.

Poppy Shell is the stalwart, a costume designer who been involved in practically every play and costume on Kauai for the past two decades. She began her sewing and costuming career by outfitting her kids who performed plays in the family back yard when the family lived in Oregon. Now, with two decades of costuming Kauai plays on the books, she runs the costume warehouse above the Puhi Theater where all the costumes end up. She has an inventory that would make Hollywood proud.

Recently, the three wrapped up “Beauty and the Beast” — a stressful but rewarding endeavor given the various costumes involved, such as silverware and furniture that dance. More shows and costumes are in the future, but in the meantime, the designers — who work with Hawaii Children’s Theater, Kauai Community Players and Kauai Performing Arts Center — sat down with The Garden Island to talk about the art, sweat and grind behind creating the fantastical.

The Garden Island: So, in the costuming world, was “Beauty and the Beast” an intense play?

Poppy: If you do something Shakespearean, if you do something fantasy, if you doing something from the 1800s, it’s not like we have that kind of stuff laying around, so that kind of stuff has to be constructed. So, by saying “Beauty and the Beast” is a more intense play, any play that’s fantasy or from the olden days is going to be intense in the work we do.

Esther: I kind of took over for HCT and started doing more fantastical stuff because I’m more into imaginary costumes. It’s just something I can create. Like, for instance, “Cinderella.” I had the step-sisters. I kind of imagined them to be in a wacky kind of costumes to make the audience laugh because they’re characters. So one day it was pouring rain and I thought, you know what, that will be a blast, so I created a costume out of three layers of umbrellas that I made, fabric as a skirt. It’s just out of the ordinary, wacky kinds of things.

TGI: How many hours went into “Beauty and the Beast”?

Esther: For me, around 600 hours.

TGI: 600 hours!

Barbara: And we’d be texting each other sometimes at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, but I’m at home working and she’s in the classroom working being hungry, didn’t bring enough food … (laughing).

TGI: When you’re working on so many costumes for so long, do you find yourself going stir-crazy?

Esther: What I do is so different and variable.

Barbara: And you’re constantly calculating in your brain.

Poppy: Esther’s costuming is almost more like prop making. What she’s making is more objects with stiff components to them that are almost construction than what we do where we take the pattern, lay the pattern out, cut it …

TGI: Is it all fun?

Esther: Yep. I just have a million ideas running around in my brain and to actually stop myself and to center on the one thought alone is kind of a challenge and I keep on changing my mind, “Oh no, this would be better.” I have to stop myself, “Nope, cannot, this is your budget, this is the material.”

Barbara: A lot of the times the ideas are so many that your hands can’t work as fast as your brain wants to.

Esther: It’s a labor of love.

Barbara: For the kids (acting in the plays), this is like a real outlet for them. … These are kids who may not have been able to afford that but are so extremely talented. But through this (school) program they can develop their acting, their singing, their dancing, at no additional costs for their parents.

Poppy: And it’s very much like sports as far as learning to get along in a group. A lot of the same things learned in theater are learned in sports. Taking direction, trying hard when you know you’re not the best one. Everyone’s not the quarterback.

TGI: But it is a lot of work?

Poppy: It’s always better if you have a least two people. … It’s a very big job for one person unless it’s a tiny little play. And the young people aren’t learning how to sew. It’s a dying thing. It’s going to get to the point where they can only do shows where they can use costumes that are already upstairs (in the Puhi shop).

TGI: Is there a plan in place to train the next generation?

Barbara: There’s no formal plan but I personally take a sewing student every year and I just do that when I can. Like right now, I have a girl who comes once or twice a month to sew with me and she’s learning.

TGI: How do you find your students?

Barbara: Believe it or not, a lot of people ask and would love to open a sewing school one day. But a lot of people ask. This student I have now happens to be the daughter of someone I went to high school with and I told her, “Yeah, just bring her.”

TGI: Are you able to sit back and just enjoy a show or are you looking at the costumes saying, “I wish I would have done some things different”? Is there ever that feeling?

Esther: I always think, “Oh, I wish I had done something different.” The darn things bugs me, “Why didn’t I think of making a scroll for the bed that matched the wardrobe?”

TGI: But costumes have to be practical, too, they have to be efficient?

Poppy: Oh yeah. Sometimes we double-dress people. They’ll have a complete costume on underneath, and then they take off the top one. That works good with skirts and dresses.

Barbara: For Belle, there’s literally five of us around her. The second she gets off stage one person is pulling down her skirt, the other person is putting the bow in her hair, one person is pulling off the apron, so she can get back on stage in 30 seconds.

TGI: It sounds intense.

Barbara: It is intense! (laughing)

Poppy: Now, what we like is when the person who wrote the play thought of that. There have been times where we go, “They didn’t think about the fact that somebody has to be in a completely different costume and they got two lines of music.”

TGI: Do the actors understand and appreciate your work?

Barbara: I’ve had amazing feedback from the kids. One of the seniors this year, she wrote me a letter and said, “Thank you for making me feeling so beautiful.” And she had been the lead for four years. Every year I’d make her custom gowns.

Poppy: A lot of the thankfulness of this job is us having so much fun creating and seeing our stuff on stage.

Barbara: Seeing everything come together on stage, that’s so nice.

TGI: Are there boring productions? One set in the ‘80s, a modern couple wearing normal clothes?

Poppy: Oh yeah, we did a Neil Simon play called “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and everyone, I think, wore one costume and it was just suits and dresses.

Esther: See, that kind of play I couldn’t feel proud of doing. I want to feel like I’ve done something creative.

Barbara: I love sketching it out, and seeing the fabrics.

Poppy: That’s the difference! I love to use stuff that’s up there (in the store). I’m the expert on knowing what’s up there and how to adapt stuff. They like to take stuff and make it from scratch. So I tell people, “If you want to do a play for cheap, you hire me. I will reuse everything possible! If you want some really amazing custom stuff, hire them!”

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