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Costume Designing Through Time

Costume Designing Through Time

By Joanne Cunningham, Costume Designer


Certainly one of the most challenging and interesting aspects of designing costumes for a show is creating a look that is appropriate to the era in which the story takes place. Most scripts specify the time (sometimes the exact year, sometimes just a decade) when the action occurs. Sometimes the director has his or her own idea for the era they want to use.

Most designers have some eras with which they feel the most comfortable. For those shows, not a lot of research is involved. For example, I have a pretty easy time envisioning the look of the 1950s and 1960s, probably because I grew up in that era. I can close my eyes and see what the clothes looked like back then, and this makes it easier to find suitable costumes for shows that take place at that time.

Other decades…or centuries, for that matter…take research to understand. Women’s silhouettes, for instance, have changed drastically over time. Appropriate accessories, types of fabrics, sometimes even color choices need to be understood in order to create the proper mood on stage. In the past year or so I’ve designed a number of shows that took place in the Victorian era, a time I knew little about until I started researching it. Fortunately for me (and other designers, I’m sure!), it’s now pretty easy to Google “1890s women’s evening wear” or any other topic and get hundreds of images to start my research. I usually also seek out articles that explain more about the do’s and do not’s of fashion at that time, mainly because an online image search can just as easily lead to inaccurate examples as it can to accurate ones.

On rare occasions, a play or musical will cover a span of more than one time period, whether by chronological action (as THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB will do later this season) or by other theatrical devices. In the case of MOON OVER BUFFALO, there are two plays that take place within the play itself. The actual time period of the play is post-WWII, so the day-to-day costumes need to evoke a 1940s/50s feel. But embedded within the play there are two completely different eras as well. Some of the characters become actors in a scene from CYRANO DE BERGERAC, which takes place in the 1600s, and some are in a scene from PRIVATE LIVES which calls for 1920s evening wear.

Moon-costumesIn other words, this show has taken a whole lot of research on my part to figure out how to portray those three eras with some degree of accuracy so that they each evoke a certain “feel”. Make plans to come see MOON OVER BUFFALO to see if I’ve been able to pull it off!

Moon Over Buffalo Auditions are coming up!

Audtion Reminder: Sunset Playhouse
Why not try out for this exciting comedy?  You will be a part of a quality production, meet new friends, and get out of the house! MOON OVER BUFFALO will be directed by Michael (Paco) Pocaro. Please come to Sunset Playhouse on one of the audition dates listed above. Auditions will consist of readings from the script.
Auditions: Monday, July 18th & Tuesday 19th 7:00-10:00 pm*
Callbacks: Wednesday, July 20th (if necessary) 7:00-10:00 pm
Rehearsals: Monday, August 1st, 2016 – Wednesday, September 7th, 2016**
Performances: September 8th – 25th, 2016
Scripts are available for check-out at the box office for a $10 deposit.
Box Office hours are Tuesdays 1 pm – 7 pm
Wednesdays-Fridays 1 pm – 5 pm & Saturdays 1 pm- 4 pm
Contact Ann Mather at amather@sunsetplayhouse.com or 262-782-4431, ext 221 if you have any further questions or
if you plan to arrive later than 8:30 pm for auditions.
A hilarious comedy, MOON OVER BUFFALO centers on a couple of over-the-hill actors trying to keep their marriage and their ragtag touring company afloat. In Buffalo, New York, there’s suddenly one last shot at stardom — film director Frank Capra is rumored to be arriving for their matinee and might sign them to a Hollywood contract. But this is fun-filled farce at its finest so everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It’s the perfect recipe for an evening of madcap, door-slamming, belly-laugh adventures.
If you saw BOEING BOEING and enjoyed it, why not audition for MOON OVER BUFFALO.  This show will be directed by Paco, the same person who directed the hit BOEING BOEING.  Hope to see you at the auditions.

2016-17 Sunset Playhouse Single Tickets On Sale July 5th!

Single tickets for our 2016-17 Season will go on sale to the public on July 5th.  We have a great line-up so be sure to order your tickets online or stop at the box office starting July 5th for the best seating selection.


2016-17 Season of Sunset Playhouse Milwaukee

In addition to our Furlan shows, we will offer 6 Musical MainStage Concerts and 6 SideNotes Cabarets that are not-to-be-missed.

Season 2016 Sunset Playhouse Milwaukee

Our box office hours are:  Tuesday 1 – 7PM,  Weds – Friday 1 – 5PM and Saturday 1 – 4PM.   Be sure to stop in as soon as you can to get the best seats.  You can also call our box office at 262-782-4430 or buy all of your tickets on SunsetPlayhouse.com

2016-17 Season: Furlan Auditiorium Productions


Sunset Playhouse recently held our 2016-17 Season Preview Party where we  announced eight productions to be offered as part of its 2016-17 Furlan Auditorium Season, including hilarious comedies, edgy dramas, intriguing mysteries, and Broadway musicals.

TFurlan-productions-2016 -17he Furlan season begins in September with MOON OVER BUFFALO (directed by Michael Pocaro), a comical look at a couple of over-the-hill actors trying to keep their marriage and their ragtag touring company afloat. October will bring FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (directed by Diana Alioto), the beloved musical story of Tevye, Golde , their five daughters, and the colorful community of Anatevka. In December, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER (directed by Michael Pocaro) launches the holidays with a couple struggling to mount the annual church pageant while  forced to cast a family of raucous, misbehaving bullies.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (directed by Brian Zelinski), a classic screwball comedy in which everything that can go wrong absolutely does, kicks off the new year.  March will find us in that LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (directed by Tommy Lueck), with its meek floral assistant, Seymour Krelborn, stumbling across a new breed of plant which can only survive on human blood. Then we’ll meet five southern women, whose friendships began many years ago on their college swim team. A heartwarming story of love and laughter, THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB will be directed by Dustin Martin.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (directed by Carol Dolphin), is the mystery that keeps on giving as eight dinner party guests meet their demise one by one. The Furlan 2016-17 season wraps up in a big, boisterous way with the musical HELLO, DOLLY! (directed by Tom Weissgerber). This turn-of-the-century New York City story of matchmaker Dolly Levi, features a memorable, Tony-Award winning Jerry Herman score.

MOON OVER BUFFALO – September 8-25, 2016

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF – October 13 – November 6, 2016


YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU – January 19 – February 4, 2017

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS – March 2-19, 2017

THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB – April 20 – May 7, 2017

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE – June 1-18, 2017

HELLO, DOLLY! – July 13 – August 6, 2017


Season tickets for the 2016-17 season at Sunset Playhouse are now on sale, both Full Package and the Pick & Choose Flexible Package.  Individual tickets will go on sale July 5, 2016.

What’s Happening At Sunset


Well, spring has sprung and we can finally venture outside so why not get out of the house and head over to Sunset for one of our upcoming productions?  April will be a very busy month at the Playhouse.  Next week (April 7-9), our SideNotes Cabaret will present HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FOOTLIGHTS, an evening of Broadway show tunes. Then you won’t want to miss the Sunset premiere of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE*, April 21st through May 8th.  This hilarious yet touching  musical tells the story of six students who vie for the championship of a lifetime. Our final Musical MainStage concert of the season, RING-A-DING-DING: SINATRA & CO. (April 25-26), will swing to the sounds of the big band era with hits from folks like Frank, Ella, Bing, and Rosie.



We hope you were able to attend our sold-out 2016-17 Season Preview Party! This wonderful celebration showcased Sunset’s upcoming season, with scenes and songs from our Furlan Auditorium Productions, SideNotes Cabaret Series, and our Musical MainStage Concert Series.season-preview-party

If you are a season subscriber, you should have received your season ticket packet. If you would like to subscribe, please contact the box office and we will be happy to mail you subscription information. We offer both full-season packages and our popular Pick & Choose option which allows you to purchase four or more vouchers good for any show at any time and save money!


Finally, under the direction of Project Manager Jan Pritzl, work is underway on the creation of our new lower-level classroom/rehearsal hall.  Thanks to a grant from Heart of Canal, we are excited to create this wonderful and much-needed addition for all our students and volunteers.



*Suggested for mature audiences only

Ghosts at Sunset Playhouse


Any reputable theater is supposedly haunted. Indeed, Sunset has its share of ghost stories, although I have never seen or heard any phantoms myself.

Well, unless we count the dozens and dozens I’ve costumed, that is.

ghosts_SunsetPlayhouseIn October I designed both the adult and junior versions of Addams Family, which meant finding or building costumes for countless ghostly ancestors. Eighteen in the adult cast, probably close to 30 in the junior cast…that’s a lot of ghosts. The fun part of doing those shows was that those costumes could come entirely from my imagination. There are no preconceived notions of exactly what the Addams Family’s ancestors look like, so as long as I pulled ideas from many times in history, I felt confident that the audience would accept my choices.

There is a slightly different challenge with my latest group of ghosts (yes, add more ghosts to my costuming list!)…the four iconic spirits in A Christmas Carol. Unlike the aforementioned wildly imaginative ancestors, the spirits in A Christmas Carol are firmly fixed in most people’s memories. Whether having seen the show on another stage, on TV, or even in the Mr. Magoo classic cartoon, nearly everyone has an idea of just what the ghosts are supposed to look like.

I don’t believe that it is the job of a costume designer to simply copy what someone else has done (although, believe it or not, there are no patents on costume designs so I could copy one exactly if I wanted to), so I have been striving to find my own vision while staying true to what the audiences will expect. Jacob Marley needs to be ragged and ghostly, more on the order of the Addams Family ghosts and decided less cheerful than the Ghost of Christmas Present, who should call to mind a jovial Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come must be intimidating and terrifying. Those three are portrayed similarly enough in every show to help guide my own design.

2075baa9-b945-419f-9ddf-6d090204b852crThe Ghost of Christmas Past has been the most challenging, especially since every production seems to portray that spirit in vastly different ways. I needed to find a look that would suit this particular ghost’s demeanor and would provide a sharp contrast to Marley, whose arrival directly precedes that of Christmas Past.

All four of these Christmas spirits definitely have their own identities and looks. I hope that audiences will appreciate each of them in their own right, and that Sunset’s newest cast of ghosts will “live” up to expectations!

Joanne Cunningham

Sherlock Holmes Costumes

The fun and challenge of Victorian dress construction – by Joanne Cunningham

This season I have the opportunity to do something I’ve never done before – design costumes for shows that take place at the end of the 19th century. I have never before attempted to construct Victorian-era dresses, and am learning so much as I tackle this new challenge. Come on along to a time when clothes were far more complicated than they are now!

Victorian fashion came from trends that were popular in England (think Queen Victoria) from the 1830s to the early 1900s. With the increasing use of sewing machines starting in the mid-1800s, it was easier to make elaborate, lavish dresses that featured an extravagant amount of lace and other trims.

The most important feature of dresses of this era was the hourglass silhouette that women desired. Skirts were large – the use of hoops, crinolines and bustles helped to make waists appear small in comparison. In time, as skirts got progressively smaller and tighter, bodices and sleeves got larger to help accentuate the hourglass figure. Much use was made of boning to hold the shape, and lace and other fancy trim to embellish dresses. New dyes in bright colors were being developed to replace the old vegetable and animal dyes that had been used in the past. The result was dresses that were lovely, extravagant and fantastic.

As I am starting to build some of these dresses for SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE FINAL ADVENTURE, I am learning that it takes miles of fabric to recreate the true Victorian style. The pleated ruffle at the bottom of one skirt took no less than 30 linear feet of fabric to make the finished 12′ long ruffle! The patterns are complicated and take some trial and error to understand, but as dresses begin to take shape I am excited by what I see.

sherlock-holmes-patternunnamed (3)

The lead actress in our show will have four different dresses, and I am eager to see how they all come together. I have some incredible volunteers who are helping me this time around, which is wonderful. (I can’t imagine having to build four Victorian dresses on my own in the limited time I have between when I first meet the actors for a show and our first dress rehearsal!)


Be sure to come to SHERLOCK HOLMES and see the sorts of costumes rarely seen on our stage…amazing dresses in the Victorian style!

Only Four Actors….But HOW Many Different Costumes?????

Only Four Actors….But HOW Many Different Costumes?????

Joanne Cunningham, Costume Designer

It should come as no surprise that to design costumes for a large musical takes a great deal of time. With 30+ people in a cast, and with each person probably requiring multiple costumes, a costume designer’s organizational skills are really put to the test when the upcoming show is a large one.

This is why it is a nice break to occasionally do a small show, one with only a few actors. After all, how hard can it be to costume just a handful of people?

Well….sometimes it’s not all that easy, especially when those few actors are playing a dizzying number of roles. Such is the case in Sunset Playhouse’s upcoming production, 39 STEPS.

When I offered to design this play, I assumed that having only four actors to costume would be a breeze, especially since lately I have been doing exceedingly large and complicated shows. Let’s just say that my assumptions were slightly incorrect. Between these four tremendously talented actors, no fewer than 28 different people are portrayed…and each one needs to be costumed in such a way that the audience will be able to differentiate between them and recognize them each time they appear on stage.

Many of the character and costumes changes are exceedingly quick and happen on stage, so some costumes need to be rigged for easy on/easy off changes. Do you really think that jacket is buttoned? If I’ve done my job well, it will appear so. The reality, of course, is that I am giving my utmost thanks to the inventor of Velcro, a costume designer’s greatest tool. It comes in mighty handy in a show such as this one!

hats-39 steps

In order to make sure the actors know which costumes to wear at which times, designers usually prepare a costume plot. This is a scene-by-scene listing of who is on stage and what, exactly, they should be wearing. Costume plots often resemble large spreadsheets. An actor can follow his or her costume changes across the page, using this as a roadmap to make sure that all needed pieces are pre-set in places where they can be easily accessed during the play. In ONE memorable scene in 39 STEPS, two of the actors change roles more than a dozen times. Needless to say, that’s one complicated costume plot!

Be sure to make a date to come and see THE 39 STEPS…and see if you can keep track of all the costume changes. I’m certainly hoping that the actors will manage to remember what they are wearing when!


Why not Audition for THE 39 STEPS?

Looking for something fun to do this spring?  Why not Audition for THE 39 STEPS?  This hilarious show features non-stop action and will be directed by Diana Alioto.   We are looking for a great cast and crew for this exciting show.  Auditions will consist of readings from the script.  Scripts are available to check out for a cash or check deposit prior to auditions.   Auditioners will be asked to fill out an Audition Information Sheet prior to auditions; one may fill this out the night of the auditions or ahead of time by downloading the THE 39 STEPS Audition Form.

Here are the dates of the auditions and information about the show:

Auditions: March 2 – March 3, 2015 (7-10 pm)*

Callbacks: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 (if necessary)
Rehearsals:  March 16 – April 22, 2015**

Performances: April 23 – May 10, 2015


Hitchcock meets hilarious as Englishman Richard Hannay encounters dastardly murders, double-crossing secret agents and devastatingly beautiful women in this fast-paced whodunit.  Part espionage thriller and part slapstick comedy, four actors play over 150 characters in this ingeniously adapted homage to film noir and theatrical stagecraft.


All the roles in the play are performed by four actors. One plays Richard Hannay; a female plays the three women in the play; and two “clowns” play every other character, including heroes, villains, men, women, children, and even the occasional inanimate object. The following is only a partial list of those many characters.

Richard Hannay: A dapper English gentleman, Richard Hannay is bored until Annabella Schmidt comes into his life and starts him on a heroic and hilarious journey.

The Woman:
  • Annabella Schmidt: An exotic secret agent, Annabella Schmidt is in dire need of Hannay’s help.
  • Pamela: A beautiful woman, Pamela is lured into Hannay’s adventure but is skeptical of his claims of innocence.
  • Margaret: The wife of Crofter the farmer, Margaret is a shy young woman who dreams of life and adventure in the city.
The Two Clowns:
  • Crofter: A deeply jealous and suspicious Scottish farmer, Crofter houses Hannay for a night while he is on the run.
  • Mr. Memory: A stage performer, Mr. Memory has the ability to recall thousands of facts on command.
  • Professor Jordan: Surrounded in mystery, Professor Jordan may hold the key to learning what and who “The 39 Steps” are.
  • Other heroes, villians, men, women and inanimate objects.

THE 39 STEPS is not a show that is done often so if you are looking for an exciting new production to be a part of, please consider coming to the auditions next week!


Meet the cast of THE NERD

Meet The Cast
(in order of appearance)
Zach Zembrowski (Willum Cubbert) –  Zach is beyond excited to return to the Sunset stage. Favorite roles include Albert Soady Jr. in ESCANABA IN LOVE (Sunset), David Rodingham in WRITE ME A MURDER (Waukesha Civic Theatre), and The Pirate King in THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (Storyteller Theater of Milwaukee).

Deanna Strasse (Tansy McGinnis) –  Deanna is so excited to be playing Tansy again (post-high school).  Favorite roles include Jean (FUNNY MONEY) at Waukesha Civic, Carol/America/Velda/et al (THE AMISH PROJECT) with The Off-Book Players, Christina (MURDER ON THE NILE) at Sunset Playhouse, and Elvira (BLITHE SPIRIT) with the Hartford Players.



Phil Stepanski (Axel Hammond) – Phil is thrilled to be back at Sunset after his recent turn as the stuttering Billy Bibbit in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.  Other Playhouse credits include Cole Porter in RED, HOT, AND COLE, Moonlight in LUMBERJACKS IN LOVE, and two bug In a rug Children’s Theater productions.
Terry Gavin (Warnock Waldgrave) – Terry’s credits include MACBETH (King Duncan), DOUBT (Father Flynn), ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES and PERESTROIKA (Roy Cohn), WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (Nick), and DEATH OF A SALESMAN (Biff). In addition, he has appeared in the film BILL WILSON and recently completed filming HOUSE ARREST.

Donna Daniels (Clelia Waidgrave) – Donna has been performing on the Sunset stage for over twenty years and is thrilled to join old and new friends onstage and backstage! Her Playhouse credits include Miss Casewell in THE MOUSETRAP, Chelsea in ON GOLDEN POND, Ouisa in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, Lucille in DEARLY DEPARTED, and Trudy in SOCIAL SECURITY.

Jonathan LaMack (Thor Waldgrave) – Thirteen years old and a Waukesha resident, Jonathan is very involved with singing and acting. Credits include OLIVER, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.

Robin Christiansen (Rick Steadman) – Performing for the first time at Sunset Playhouse, Robin is returning to the stage after a hiatus of several years. He majored in theater at Northwestern University, where his credits include Barry Champlain (TALK RADIO), Shamraev (THE SEAGULL), and the Philostrate (A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM). 

One of the funniest plays ever written, THE NERD was first presented by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, then produced in Great Britain before it went on to Broadway.

The action centers on the hilarious dilemma of a young architect who is visited by a man he’s never met but who saved his life in Vietnam. The guest turns out to be an incredibly inept, hopelessly stupid “nerd” who outstays his welcome with a vengeance.

  Click Here to purchase your tickets online! 


Or call the box office: (262) 782-4430