Steal this job: Theater draper

April 14, 2014

Randall Exton brings costume designers’ plans to life at Shakespeare Theatre Co. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Randall Exton, 50

Salary: $39,000

Position: Draper, Shakespeare Theatre Co. (516 Eighth Street SE; 202-547-1122)

What He Does: When people ask Exton what he does, he usually says, “I’m a pattern maker.” If that doesn’t do the trick, he says: “Do you know the show ‘Project Runway?’ That’s what I do.”

As a draper at the Shakespeare Theatre Co., Exton’s job is to make the dreams of costume designers a reality. He takes renderings of what the actors will wear and makes them into patterns — basically maps for seamstresses to follow. Then two other theater employees cut the cloth and stitch the costumes together. Exton takes those makeshift costumes to the actors and oversees a series of fittings, until each outfit is perfected. “It’s a very old-world job that not many people do,” he says.

And drapers aren’t only found in the theater: Some work at universities, helping produce college plays and teaching their skill. Others work for fashion designers, and some work on films.

How He Got The Job: Exton says he found his career by accident. In 1984, while getting his undergraduate degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he needed a work-study job, and spotted an opening at the school theater’s costume shop. Exton had tried out his sister’s sewing machine in the past, but didn’t really know how to sew. “I said, ‘I’m sure I can fake it,’ because I really needed the job,” he says. After a while, his supervisor told him he had a knack for the craft, leading Exton to pursue a master’s degree in costume design and technology at Florida State University.

Since then, he’s worked for dozens of regional theaters as a draper, including a long stint at the Washington National Opera. He landed a contract at the Shakespeare Theatre Co. five years ago. Since many drapers stitch together temporary jobs and freelance work to make a living, Exton’s contract at the Shakespeare Co. is a rarity in the theater-draping world.

Who Would Want This Job: You have to work well under pressure and have good time-management skills, Exton says. For a recent production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Exton had to create four costumes in a week and a half, from mock-up to finished product, with three fittings each.

Sewing skills are a plus, and pattern-making can be learned as you go or picked up from classes or books. Drapers sometimes make “flat patterns,” taking the designer’s sketch and turning it into a 2-D schematic for cloth-cutting, using the actor’s measurements and certain formulas. Exton makes nearly all pants this way. But for nearly everything else, he first looks at the costume design, then drapes (yes, that’s where the name of the job comes from) cloth over a mannequin to mimic the design sketch. Then he marks the cloth at the appropriate places and creates the paper pattern.

Having an eye for beauty doesn’t hurt; but great drapers are the perfect blend of “book smarts and talent,” Exton says.

Most importantly, drapers have to have the theater bug. “It has got to be your passion,” Exton says, “because you’re never going to get rich.” The recession hit the arts scene hard: Jobs can be hard to come by, and they don’t pay much. But Exton doesn’t let that bother him. “You can worry about it, but then you say: ‘This is what I love to do.’ ”

How You Can Get This Job: Most drapers have their master’s degrees in costume technology or design, like Exton, or have learned the tools of their trade in the fashion world. You can also learn a lot by teaching yourself with books on sewing and costumes, delving into the vast number of sewing tutorials on YouTube, or by attending a conference, like the annual U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology one (usitt.org). You can volunteer at a theater, or find internship programs like the one at Shakespeare Theatre Co. — Exton’s costume shop usually has three interns.

Once you’ve developed your skills, expect to start small, working part-time gigs at local theaters before moving on to big-city, year-round theaters. And you can find freelance gigs by networking — or take a bolder approach and call costume directors directly and tell them you’re sew ready. Liz Essley Whyte (For Express)

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