A Conversation with Stephen Hollenbeck

Da’Keisha Bryant as Evilene in The Wiz at ACT - costumes by Stephen Hollenbeck - photo by Garry Chilluffo

Last Sunday evening, after seeing “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” at the Theatre on the Square, I met costume designer Stephen Hollenbeck for further conversation.  I admire his creativity, his passion, his skill, and his commitment to excellence.

I had talked with him about his work twice before:  first, a few months ago in his upstairs studio at the Hedbeck Theatre where he was preparing costumes for Footlite Musicals’ production of “Jane Eyre,” and second, several nights ago at my table at the American Cabaret Theatre after “The Wiz.”  Last Sunday night we went to a quiet corner of the Metro Restaurant to talk.

Hollenbeck has a memory like an elephant’s and a biting sense of humor.  I wish I had brought a machine to record our conversation on Sunday, instead of just my notebook and pen.  Our conversation went all over the place, and sometimes I enjoyed it so much that I forgot to take notes.  The following is just a scraping from the tip of the iceberg of informational wealth that Hollenbeck gave me – wealth not only from his own career but from the past 20-30 years of Indianapolis theatre in general.  Any errors or gaps are my fault, not his.

By the way, the photo accompanying this blog post is of the dress Hollenbeck designed for Evilene in the “The Wiz,” which is still running at the American Cabaret Theatre through August 17, 2008.  I love it because of the startling, Freudian eyes, but also because it is a revamped costume from the gorgeous dress that Julie Dutcher wore as Lady Ingram in “Jane Eyre” at Footlite.

“I usually can’t stand to do that (re-use costumes),” Hollenbeck told me, to my surprise.  “But I knew it would fit her (actor Da’Keisha Bryant) and I was running out of time.”

Still, he took the time to fashion black eyelashes for the eyes.  He wrapped two layers of buckram around curved wire structures, and then covered it all with glitter.  The “simple” process sounded pretty complicated to me.

How He Got Started

Hollenbeck told me that when he was a child, one of his more sophisticated, beautiful cousins left an elegant dress at his house.  He would come home from school, put on the dress, and watch “Dark Shadows” on TV while eating a bowl of ice cream.  This made him feel very happy. 

When he was in 7th grade, his father took him to see his first show, “Gypsy.”  Hollenbeck knew then that that was what he wanted to do for a living: design costumes for theatre.  He worked on every show he could at Speedway High School.  His father was, and still is, very supportive of his career choice.

His mother was supportive, too, in her own way.  When Hollenbeck came home from school and announced that he needed a costume for a part he was playing in “The Wizard of Oz,” she said, “There’s the sewing machine.”  He went to work.

But after high school he took a costume class at IUPUI and received an “F.”  The instructor told him, “You will never be a serious designer.”  Hollenbeck laughs about it, now, but I bet that comment hurt at the time.

Fortunately, he was able to ignore the comment enough to keep doing what he loved.  He found other ways to learn about his craft. 

Some of his education came from trial and error.  For example, he designed a dress from a silver-and-white-striped lame’ shower curtain for actor Marni Lemons to wear in “Kismet” at Footlite.   He hot-glued red and blue beads all over it, so thickly that they formed a kind of armor, “and every time she hit a high note, beads would zing off and hit the orchestra.”  Lemons was forgiving, even if the orchestra was not. 

“We were both young,” Hollenbeck said.  “And she was a very good sport.  All I have left of that dress now is a little tin box of beads.  I keep it to remind me of who I was and where I came from.”

Some of his education came from mentors at Landis Costume Company, where he worked for a while after college.  The owners of that company knew his family and knew the work that he had done on high school shows.

Some of his education came from a business partner, Steven Summers, who was a designer from Chicago.  Hollenbeck and Summers formed a costume company called “Steven and Stephen.”  Hollenbeck loved to design women’s clothes and Summers loved to design men’s clothes, so for a while they were a good fit.  However, Summers and Hollenbeck had different standards for balancing cost management against artistic excellence – “He is the one who introduced me to the world of hot glue!” – so they eventually parted ways, too.

For a while, Hollenbeck had his own costume company, called “Dramatic Images.”   The management of the Hedbeck Theatre let him have studio space on the second floor in exchange for designing and building costumes for Footlite Musicals.  Hollenbeck worked for several other local theatres as well, including the Phoenix Theatre and the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  “I was a dresser and stitcher at the IRT, though, not a designer.”

A turning point came in 1991, when his costuming of “Into the Woods” at Footlite Musicals won an Encore Award.  That show, and Hollenbeck’s costume designs, also won the state, regional, and national awards given by the American Association of Community Theatres, which in turn got the cast and crew invited to participate in the Toyama International Amateur Theatre Festival in Japan in 1992.  (Thanks, Marni Lemons, for some of the details in this paragraph!)

Personal Influences

When he was fresh out of college, or maybe even before that, Blaine Jarrett, Bill Hall, and Mary Potts took young Hollenbeck under their wings and refined him. “They taught me about china, crystal, the finer things in life,” Hollenbeck said.

He was living with Blaine Jarrett at the time.  Jarrett would tell Hollenbeck to get dressed because they were going over to one of others’ houses to have dinner or play cards.

“I’m not going!” Hollenbeck would say.  “They will be mean to me!”  He knew that Jarrett would cut him some slack about his manners and his ignorance, but Hall and Potts never did.

Of the trio, only Mary Potts is still alive.  I have had the great pleasure of eating dinner with her.  Twice.  “She was MEAN to you?” I asked Hollenbeck.  I was having a hard time imagining it.

“Oh, she could be brutal.  One time she was in a show where another actress who was annoyed about something decided that she was going to do all of her lines in a monotone.  The first time that she and Mary came off stage that night, Mary grabbed her breast and twisted it hard. ‘You better act right from now on!’ Mary told her.  And she did.

“But she also bought me my first book on design….They (Potts, Hall, and Jarrett) made me responsible for myself,” Hollenbeck told me.  “They had a profound effect on me…They truly shaped my life as an artist.”  He is grateful for their “meanness” now.

Florida

For a number of reasons, Hollenbeck decided to move to Florida in 2002.    He underwent a grueling, eight-hour interview at Costume World, at the end of which, the manager, Marilyn Wick, said, “We want you!”  Through Costume World, Hollenbeck designed costumes for theatres all over the country.  Hollenbeck rattled off to me a long list that included the Gateway Theatre on Long Island; the Fox Theatre in Atlanta; Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre; and other theatres in Denver, Texas, and more.  He designed costumes for the Ice Follies, too.   “Even Beef ‘n’ Boards.  I couldn’t get work with them when I was living up here, but when I moved to Florida, I could (through Costume World.)”

Marilyn would send him all over the country, too.  He would design everything in Florida, but then go out to the theatre for two nights during Tech Week (the final week of rehearsals before a show opens) to fix whatever needed fixing.  “You have to look at things on stage,” Hollenbeck said.  Often he would fax a list back to Marilyn of the things he needed from the shop and she would ship them out to him via overnight delivery.

Marilyn was a very generous, but very demanding boss.  She would give him $2000 and tickets to New York for his birthday, but she also expected him to be on call “24/7.”   He was in a relationship and had two dogs, but he couldn’t spend time with any of them.

Still, the excitement of the Costume World life was worth it for a while.  At one point they bought the costume stock of a company that had provided pieces for Broadway.  Some of the costumes still had the actors’ names sewn into them:  Whoopie Goldberg, Yul Brynner, etc.  “I told Marilyn that if we rented out those costumes, they would never come back!  People would be willing to just pay the fines in order to be able to keep such collectors’ items!”   They did restore Julie Andrews’ evening gown from “My Fair Lady” and display it in a glass case in the shop.

Hollenbeck worked at Costume World for four years, burning the candle at both ends…until he had an emotional and physical breakdown. 

Back Home Again in Indiana

Hollenbeck and Summer Stock Productions’ producing/artistic director Kelly Butler Smith met at a Footlite Young Artists production in 1975 and have been friends ever since.  “We are lifetime friends,” Hollenbeck told me. 

When he hit bottom in Florida, Smith told him to “Come on home!  Just come home.”  She found him a job in an interior design company in Indy, for which he will always be grateful.  Another friend, Michael Corvell, also helped him come home.

But designing pillow shams was not the same as designing costumes.  When Theatre on the Square director Ron Spencer said he had a niece, Cheryl Harmon, who was looking for help with her costume shop, Hollenbeck jumped at the opportunity.  Now Hollenbeck works fulltime at Costumes by Margie and is very grateful for that job, too.  He is also the resident costumer for TOTS and serves on the board of Footlite Musicals.

He also designs costumes for Smith.  He just finished designing costumes for their “Urinetown,” for example.  (I am sorry that I did not get a chance to see that!)

“The Wiz” is his first time designing for the American Cabaret Theatre.    As I mentioned in my review of the show, the costumes are just one “wow” after another.  The Tin Man, for example, has a mailbox for one foot and a lunch box for the other.  His hat is an upside-down colander that swivels around on his head as he sings.

Hollenbeck confided to me that he made the Lion’s outfit by cutting up five Tina Turner wigs.  The Lion has a thick mane hanging down the back of his head, but a little ponytail tied with a tiny pink bow on top.  What a hoot!

Some of the “Wiz” costumes are clever in their simplicity.  The Yellow Brick Road guys with their yellow dew rags, for one example.  The orange-billed hats that the Crows wear, for another.  Dorothy wears sparkly red, backless “kicks” instead of ruby slippers.

On the other hand, some of the costumes are breathtakingly elaborate.  The good witches’ gowns, for example.  Addapearl’s is a frothy fantasy of shimmering turquoise.  Glinda’s is an elegant sweep of embroidered, apple-green satin.  The Wiz wears a gold-lined robe and a head-dress that includes rich tassels and other ornaments to fit the Chinese theme of his dragon-shaped doorway.

I assumed that Stephen had gone over budget with this show – the costumes are so rich! – but he assured me he had actually been under budget. “Bob (Harbin, the director) had a lot of material at his house.  He invited me to come over and look through it.  He said, ‘Take anything you can use’ so I did!”

However, the green Ozian outfits were purchased from someone else, who had still not delivered them by the Wednesday of Tech Week.  Hollenbeck called them up and said, “We will have an AUDIENCE on Thursday!”  (This sort of stress is why I could never be a costumer.)  Some of the green vinyl pants have already come undone at the seams.  Hollenbeck will fix and then monitor those throughout the run of the show.

Favorite Show

I asked Hollenbeck what his favorite show had been, so far, to design.  His answer was “A Little Night Music” at Buck Creek Playhouse. 

“That show had beautiful music by Sondheim and a perfect cast…Ron Spencer…Arlene Palmburg – she was a lawyer for Lilly…That was when Buck Creek was still in an old church.” 

Hollenbeck told me how Palmburg had an entrance for which she had to go outside and around the building.  He had designed a gown for her out of antique lace.  One night, it was raining, and he was afraid the gown would be ruined if she went outside in it.  He wanted to put the gown in a plastic bag and walk her and the gown under an umbrella so that she could step into the gown only just before she made her entrance.  He kept saying, “Do NOT go outside in that gown!” and she kept saying, “Yes, Stephen, I know…No, Stephen, I won’t” even as she walked around the building under the umbrella that he was holding over her!  And everything worked out fine anyway.

He also told me that he had liked being the resident costumer for the Indianapolis Civic Theatre, before he went to Florida.  “The paper called us ‘The Dream Team,'” Hollenbeck said.  “Koharchik (Ryan) on lighting and set design, Lasely (Michael) on sound, me on costumes, and Ron Morgan on choreography…Oh, he was an incredible choreographer…’Still is!”

Most Desired Show

Hollenbeck said that no one in the Indianapolis area has done “Follies” since the 1970s.  He would like to design costumes for that show some day soon.

Favorite Person to Costume

I asked Hollenbeck if there were any actors in particular that he had enjoyed costuming.   Without hesitating, he replied, “Su Ours.  Hands down.  She is magic.  I adore Su Ours.  If she said, ‘I need you,’ I’d be there.”  He can still quote verbatim from the reviews of her performance and her appearance in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre.

But he also said, “Bobbi Bates, Karen Frye, Marni (Lemons), of course…They have always been my girls, too.”

Two new “girls” are Nathalie Cruz and Erin Cohenour. “I knew they were my girls after only one show.  They give as much as I do to the stage.  They take what I give them (in the form of costumes) and they give it back (to the audience.)”

He also said that he loved working with TOTS director Ron Spencer.  “He has great ideas and we have a great relationship.  We see things the same way….there’s a lot of give-and-take between us.”  He also enjoys working with director Brian Noffke at Footlite.

Most Challenging Theatre Experience

When he was directing “South Pacific” years ago at Footlite, his partner at the time died during Tech Week.

Hollenbeck shared with me several details from that experience that seem, now, to be too personal to share here on my blog, so I’ll just say that I was especially moved by this story, and filled with sympathy.

Theatre as Family

I think I will leave it up to Hollenbeck to share his “poop in the costume” story on his own, too.  In fact, Hollenbeck shared with me, some more shamefacedly than others, several stories about the times he has blown up at, and/or or played practical jokes on, theatre people who have annoyed him.    However, something he said about other people can be applied to him, as well:  “Theatre is like family.  Some people you like better than others, but they’re all family.”

Indianapolis is lucky to have Hollenbeck as one of its theatre sons.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

11 thoughts on “A Conversation with Stephen Hollenbeck”

  1. Hope,

    What a lovely article about one of my favorite people! I had the pleasure of meeting Stephen while he was costuming “South Pacific.” It is a blessing to call him a friend. Thank you for taking the time to allow some of us Indy theater “newbies” to get to know him a little bit better.

  2. What a lovely story, Hope. Thank you. And thank you to Stephen for making Indianapolis theatre sparkle. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for over a decade now.

  3. How impressive. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to read this. It was a great article about a very interesting person. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great story Hope. I had the opportunity to meet Stephen when I did the show Boeing Boeing. He encouraged me to purchase the red wig I wore. I LOVED wearing that wig, it was exactly what my sassy character needed! He was also very helpful in allowing me to look through some of his vintage books!
    Thanks for sharing your evening with us!
    Phyllis

  5. Thanks again Hope, i brought back alot of things I had not thought about in years. On a sad note as of this writing Mary Potts has fallen very ill . Please everyone say prayer for this great lady and actress. She truly is an indy legend Stephen

  6. I have not had the pleasure of meeting or working with Stephen yet, but I love to read every little thing he posts on IA, and I’m always laughing or crying! I would love to hear his stories some day! Almos as much as I would love to work with him!

  7. Loved this article. I to worked for marilyn wick and was also on call 24/7 and wound up with a breakdown.
    Hope my story ends as Hallenbecks!!!!!

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