Syracuse Stage costumer works through off-season to bring plays to life

"Blithe Spirit" opens Sept. 18, but Gretchen Darrow-Crotty and her team have been preparing since the summer for this performance.

It’s the calm before the storm. A chance to breathe before the chaos.

The Syracuse Stage season begins in September and usually ends in late April or early May, which leaves the summer months void of performances and gives those who work for the company some semblance of a break.

But that doesn’t mean Gretchen Darrow-Crotty hasn’t already been hard at work since last season ended.

Photo: Annie Flanagan
Gretchen Darrow-Crotty has worked at the Syracuse Stage for 17 years.

“I start my day asking myself, what do I have to do for ‘Blithe Spirit?’” she said, referring to the show that will open on Sept. 18. “The department heads meet every week, even in the summer, to make sure we can work out the kinks.”

Darrow-Crotty is the costumer for Syracuse Stage. She and a team of eight others are responsible for producing the costumes for all the productions put on by both Syracuse Stage and Syracuse University Drama. It is a task that requires a great balancing act and plenty of collaboration, especially with costume designers.

One of the costume designers is Tracy Dorman, a freelancer who usually designs one show for Syracuse Stage each year. Darrow-Crotty has worked with Dorman for more than a decade.

“Gretchen has a lot on her plate, but there is a huge feeling of trust because I’ve worked with her for so many years on so many different shows,” Dorman said. “There is a shortcut in our vocabulary and how we work together. Before we even start working on a show, she has an idea of what I want to do. She keeps her eye on both the creative vision and the pragmatic idea.”

This season, Dorman will design “A Christmas Carol.” During the summer, a show about Christmas may seem off in the distance, but it can’t be too far away from Darrow-Crotty’s mind.

“I always have to be thinking of what I need to do for this show or that show,” she said moving her hands left and right. “It’s year-round.”

Darrow-Crotty was born and raised in Ithaca, where she was first taught the art of sewing by her mother.

“She came from a low-income house where the only way you had clothes is if you knew how to sew,” Darrow-Crotty said. “We didn’t have that problem growing up, but she held that philosophy of, ‘If you want it, you have to make it.’ So I’ve been sewing my whole life.”

Darrow-Crotty’s parents always had an affinity for theater, so in addition to her childhood sewing, she dabbled as an actress in school productions, only to realize she had stage fright. One summer, her mother got her a job as a dresser at a local summer stock theater. She said she fell in love with the energy, the sense of community and how everyone collaborated.

She continued meshing her interests of sewing and theater as she eventually received her MFA from the University of Connecticut in costume design, a background she said helps her relate to the designers with whom she works. After graduating, she worked for a short time in retail before a connection with a friend landed her in the Syracuse Stage costume shop as a foreman halfway through one of their seasons.

“I thought, ‘If I don’t like it, it’s only 14 weeks,’” she said. “Well, it’s 17 years later and I’m still here.”

The costume shop, in the basement of the Syracuse Stage building, looms as large as her work endeavors. She has her own office to the right, spaces for the rest of her team to the left and in the back, as well as sewing machines, cutting tables and dress forms (mannequin-like structures) in between.

Mannequins waiting to be used in the work area at Syracuse Stage. (Photo: Annie Flanagan)

But in a way it doesn’t seem large enough. That’s why she also has the costume storage room where attire from past, present and future is held. The room is a colossal display and serves as great context for what goes into a Syracuse Stage season.

The scope of the company and its production season could deter some, but according to her co-workers, Darrow-Crotty takes all of the bedlam in stride.

“Working with Gretchen is fantastic,” said David Bowman, head of the lighting department. “She’s very open to whatever is going on and is cognizant of where everyone else is in their process. It makes the working relationship a whole lot easier.”

Away from the demands of her job, Darrow-Crotty looks to relieve stress in a positive way.

“Yoga is a way to keep sane outside of work,” she said. “I’ve seen that it affects both my personal and work life in a positive way. I’m a more centered person since I started yoga."

Darrow-Crotty recently took up running. She loves to garden, and she even enjoys sewing that isn’t related to Syracuse Stage.

“Now, I have people who do a lot of the sewing for me in the costume shop,” she said. “But I still love to knit, love to sew, love to cross-stich. It’s a creative outlet.”

Her husband, Brian Crotty, who is the company manager at Syracuse Stage, recognizes that their activities away from work help explain how much they love what they do.

“We just came back from the Stratford Festival for our anniversary trip,” he said, laughing. “We saw three plays in two days, so, yes, we really do like theater.”

Crotty added that they like to have fun in other ways together outside of work, including going to the movies and going camping every summer. However, the demands of working in a theater company can be difficult when the season starts.

“She understands when my job as company manager gets in the way,” he said. “And I understand that when we’re doing a show, she’ll work 14 days in a row. So the next weekend is truly, ‘Don’t bug me, it’s time to chill out.’”

As she sits in her office in the summer, Darrow-Crotty experiences the still silence of a costume shop and a theater building that isn’t fully staffed. Now, everyone is going full-speed as “Blithe Spirit” is on the precipice of premiere. And even if that first production is great or not so great, she realizes the show must go on.

“It’s going to open and it’s going to close whether you hate it or love it,” she said. “It’s not a job where you have to do the same thing day in and day out. It’s the ebb and flow that appeals to our personality in theater.”

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