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This Costume Drama Ends Happily

By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

Storm waters that flooded Laguna Beach homes and businesses last month also inundated the high school’s theater basement, threatening a treasure trove of costumes and props that over the years have added a dash of period authenticity to countless productions.

Thanks to the able direction of Angela Irish, doyenne of the subterranean repository, a theatrical tragedy was averted when she recruited an army of volunteers who furiously raced to air out the inventory and rescue water-damaged costumes from ruin.

“I wish more people got a chance to see it,” said theater mom Barbara Pierce, of a costume cache that professional producers might envy.

There was no electricity when Irish and her husband first surveyed the dank basement prop room with flashlights in the aftermath of the Wednesday, Dec. 22, deluge. They discovered two to three inches of water on the cement floors, potentially devastating for the racks upon racks of costumes, many hung low and sweeping the floor due to the low ceiling height. Fortunately, after a costly lesson learned during a 1998 flood, props previously stored on the floor in cardboard boxes were sealed in plastic bins, escaping damage save for one box with a hole. But numerous hemlines were compromised.

Needing to act fast to prevent ruin and mold, Irish called on Pierce to send out an SOS to parents of students involved in dance and drama. She asked volunteers to show up with “rags, fans and muscles” at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 23, when electricity would be restored.

A rescue crew of 40 adults and students responded. Some filled out an assembly line, passing armfuls of costumes, from ball gowns to tuxedo shorts, up a flight of stairs to the stage, where they were hung and sorted. Others separated the wet and damp from the dry. Parents took bundles home to wash and dry, other items for dry cleaning.

By the end of the day, the entire stage of the Artists’ Theatre was transformed into a sea of costumes, enough to outfit a proverbial cast of thousands. The basement was entirely emptied except for wall shelving, allowing the floor to be dried out.

Drama supporter Susan Elliott-Richardson recruited her husband and two wet vacs to eliminate the bulk of the water. Five or six fans blasted air over several days to completely dry out the space.

After sorting and monitoring fans for the next week, Irish needed a second less frenzied crew to slowly return the inventory to the basement, allowing her to re-stock in an orderly way. Students Sawyer Pierce and Nick Laden hauled boxes with further assistance from Sawyer’s mom and Elliott-Richardson.

Elliott-Richardson continues to volunteer though her drama-loving daughter graduated several years ago. “It’s a blast. It’s so much fun,” said the theater department’s go-to seamstress, who makes costumes, hats and alterations. She loves to stumble across outfits made by other mothers.  Going through the costume inventory is “like an archeological dig,” she said.

“There is quite a sense of performing art history down there,” agreed Mark Dressler, chair of the high school and Thurston Middle School theater departments. “I walk down and look at these costumes and I see the faces of the kids that have worn these costumes.”

A 1992 capital campaign refurbished the theater and cleaned up the basement “rats’ nest,” Dressler said, but its organization is owed to Irish.

She first volunteered in 1993 when her son took a drama class at Thurston. “Somewhere along the line, I became the ‘lady of the basement’,” Irish admitted, insisting that she is just one of many volunteers, such as Elliott-Richardson and Pierce, who pull off the department’s productions. She now receives a stipend from the drama boosters, who saw the importance of keeping the costumes properly maintained.

Under Irish’s care, what used to be a jumble of costumes, old furniture and other items stored in the basement for lack of space elsewhere, has become a valuable asset sought by other schools and theater groups who frequently borrow and rent inventory, sometimes for an entire show. Irish even sent a particular pair of gloves to Elliott-Richardson’s daughter, who wanted them for a dance performance at her college in Boston.

Irish took a brief hiatus from her volunteer work to return to teaching elementary school when her son graduated. Fortunately for the drama department, she retired and returned to the basement.

In her absence, the order Irish created had dissipated. “It was such a mess,” said Elliott-Richardson, who had begun volunteering during that period.

With Dressler’s help, Irish bought racks, hangers and shelving. She began to systematically sort and label and instructed young performers to respect this resource. “Over the years there has been this culture of appreciation,” Dressler said.

And with every show, the cache accumulates a few more items, some purchased, some made by parents. Irish herself haunts thrift stores and garage sales with an eye for period pieces and interesting props. Over the years, residents have donated finds after cleaning closets. And there are windfalls, such as film producer Greg MacGillivray’s donation of costumes from “The Explorers.”

“You can’t imagine it until you see it,” said Irish, who presides over a wealth of garments and accessories of interesting colors and shapes that pull your eyes in every direction at once.

Because of the vast inventory, Irish can outfit most of the school’s small shows, though grandiose costumes, for a production like “Beauty and the Beast” are rented. Even then, sets and actors are rounded out with various items from the basement store.

Parents like Irish, along with support from the community and school board, have transformed the high school theatre, upstairs and down, Dressler said.

“She’s like the renaissance woman. She helps all of us,” said music director Roxanna Ward.

Photo by Ted Reckas

Costume mistress Angela lrish marshaled volunteers to rescue the theater department’s rain-soaked costume collection.

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