When Stacey Teague graduated from the theater department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County five years ago, she wanted to jump-start her career in costume design. But instead of sending out resumes and portfolios, she took a less conventional approach: She ran off and joined the circus.
The Calvert County native joined Cirque du Soleil - the Montreal-based company that has transformed the circus into a modern, gravity-defying theatrical production - as a temporary dresser. She followed the tours from city to city, paying for travel, food and hotels out of her own pocket, just to get the chance to wash the costumes and dress the performers between acts.
"It was a very glamorous job, let me tell you," Teague says. "But it paid off."
After tagging along with Varekai - this Cirque du Soleil show opens under the big top at Harbor Point tomorrow night - through a half-dozen cities from Sacramento, Calif., to Atlanta, she finally got her dream job. Nine months ago, Teague, 33, was named head of the wardrobe department for Varekai, the company's largest touring show.
Onstage, Cirque performers create a visual spectacle, a medley of colors, music and high-flying acrobatics. But backstage, Teague is the ringmaster. Before each show, she checks every wig, hat, shoe, wing and other outlandish props used in the show. She comes to the rescue after a bodysuit rips in midair, a wing snags on a trapeze or a feathered wig tangles in a zipper.
On an average day, it takes Teague nine to 12 hours to patch a few dozen costume holes, resole nearly 20 pairs of shoes, groom several wigs, and paint, airbrush, sew and glue anything in need of a touch-up. She monitors makeup artists and reminds everyone to double-knot their shoelaces.
"Believe it or not, some of the artists slack off a bit," she says with a laugh. "We have to be the makeup and fashion police. So if they're not on their best behavior they're on makeup detention for a week, just like in kindergarten when you go to time out."
A costume challenge
Looking after costumes for nearly 500 shows during the past nine months, Teague has seen her fair share of mishaps and blunders: the acrobats in the Russian Swings act who "pop zippers like you wouldn't believe"; the contortionist whose wings ripped off her lime-green caterpillar suit about 20 seconds before she was due on stage. Because of all the jumps, swings and leaps performers do, they have to be completely secure in their costumes.
"Everyone really relies on her," says Chantal Blanchard, the show's publicist who spends a lot of time backstage. "She can fix anything."
Sometimes the biggest challenge is defusing the performers' pre-show anxieties over last-minute costume glitches. "We have to do a lot of quick repairs," Teague says. "There are definitely moments of stress. It's hectic, but that's theater."
Teague got her start in costume design when she joined UMBC's theater department on a lark. She quickly discovered acting wasn't for her. Then she met Elena Zlotescu, an associate professor of theater and one of the school's resident costume designers. Teague soon learned how to make her teacher's flamboyant visions come to life.
"Elena is just way out in left field with her designs, so they needed someone crazy who was able to keep up with her," Teague says. "I took the challenge and made her hats and stuck with it."
Zlotescu acknowledges that it takes a lot of talent - and patience - to implement her eccentric ideas.
"Stacey would work night and day trying to re-create my crazy sketches, and I never had to worry about what she would come up with because she has such a strong sense of imagination," she says. "She was one of a kind. Not too many people can be capable of taking a sketch and turning it three-dimensional."
From head to toe
Under Zlotescu's tutorship, Teague designed the hats for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Center Stage in 1999. She started at the top with hats and worked her way down to shoes, which is now her specialty at Cirque du Soleil.
Most of the show's costumes, down to the socks and underwear, are designed and handmade in Montreal. Once they arrive on the set, however, Teague takes charge.
She works in a small trailer that sits 15 feet from the dressing rooms, cluttered with piles of misshapen shoes, a leather stretcher and a foot-powered sewing machine. Heaps of foot forms, shoelaces and measuring tapes litter her shelves and workbench, and a yellow cabinet marked "flammable" nearly overflows with a rainbow of more than 60 paint canisters.
A cloud of paint and glue fumes hovers over her work space, occasionally dispersed by a fresh, detergent-scented breeze wafting from the industrial-size washing machines next door.