CAPE MAY – Twenty-seven-year-old Sera Bourgeau hopes to be on Broadway someday. However, it will be her costumes that will be on stage, not her.
As a costume designer, Bourgeau would find herself sitting in the audience during technical and dress rehearsals, studying the whole picture of what's happening on stage. She'd be figuring out what needs to be adjusted or changed, based on how all the visual elements play together.
"The first dress rehearsal is always terrifying, but also thrilling," the Cape May native noted. "For me, I love the last few moments before first dress rehearsal starts, when the actors are walking around the stage, in costume, but not doing any scenes, just inhabiting the stage in a relaxed way.
"Usually the moments leading up to that have been hectic, anxious, a little chaotic," she added. "Things are still being worked on; actors have questions, the crew is trying to get all of the costume changes pre-set backstage, there's always a lot going on.
"But for me, when I walk out to the house, in those last moments before that rehearsal starts, and I see the actors onstage, in the (theater) world, in costume, everything slows down a little, a sort of calm before the storm, and I remember how lucky I am to do what I do for a living."
The 2008 Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate said her love of theater blossomed during high school. She acted in some of the school plays.
"I wasn't a very good actor, but our teacher, Paul Mathis, had such energy and passion for theater that he gave everyone a chance who wanted one.
"I went to the University of New Hampshire where they had a general theater program, and it was a good fit for me," she added. "It was there that I started learning about costume designing and it fit with my skills and interests."
During her junior year of college, she designed the costumes for her first play. "The field has three areas that are responsible for costume designing," she said. "First is the designer, who is the person responsible for the look of the show, for the look of each of the characters. Sometimes that means researching the time period when the play takes place, researching the characters and what they looked like during that time period as well.
"A second group is the construction team, which is the team that builds the costumes," she added. "The third group is the wardrobe team that maintains the costumes and is backstage helping with all the costumes. Since I am young in the field, I've done a little bit of it all."
Her first costume designing gig was for a summer theater group doing a play that took place in west Texas in the 1980s.
"I actually was in Texas at that time, so I had some idea of what I needed to have," Bourgeau said.
"Since we didn't have a lot of time to present renderings and sketches of what the costumes needed to look like, we talked to the director about our ideas and really tried to see what we could use from our stock. We almost designed in the moment, because there's not a lot of money available for summer theater groups."
Since then, she's been the designer in about 20 shows, although she's been part of the wardrobe team, construction team, and assistant in many more.
"I love designing the costumes because there's always so much to discover," she noted. "Costume designing entails history, art, storytelling, movement and so much more. It's everything I thought it would be, but never enough.
"Theatre is such a collaborative art form, that lives and breathes anew every single show, with everyone involved putting their whole heart into what they create," she contemplated.
"I look at paintings and sculptures I admire and may think 'How lifelike!', but working in theatre, you see your artwork truly come alive. From the initial sketches to finding the perfect fabrics, from the first fittings with actors to the first time everything hits the stage with lights and scenery and sound, to tell this story.
"We, in theatre, are used to creating the appearance of magic for audiences, but the real magic at the heart of all of it is the theatre experience."
After earning her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California, Irvine, Bourgeau moved to Manhattan and worked on an off-Broadway show called "Nickel Mines" with the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
"I actually designed the world premiere of 'Nickel Mines' during my time in grad school, and I was brought along for this second production," she noted.
She then worked on the Starz TV show, "Power," before working on several shows at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls, N.Y. "One of the major differences between TV and theater is there's usually more money available in TV," Bourgeau said.
"The process is also different because there can be hundreds of costume changes in a show, so we don't have the time to sketch out everyone's costumes. 'Power' is a modern show, but there's lots of violence, so we needed a lot of costume changes. We did a lot of shopping to get what we needed.
"TV was much more day-to-day figuring out what costumes were needed," she added. "You have to be sure the director and actors like the look and agree with your vision. Sometimes you can see the vision, but they can't, so there's lots of negotiation that can go on."
Bourgeau returned to Cape May mid-August because she's designing costumes for Cape May Stage's performance of "Outside Mullingar," which opens Sept. 27.
The romantic comedy takes place in rural Ireland where an introverted farmer nearing his middle years is pursued by his neighbor who vows to have him at all costs.
"This takes place in a fairly modern time period, 2008-2013," Bourgeau said. "The opening scene follows a funeral that just took place, so I had to research what people wore to a country funeral, what the scene might look like. I researched this by looking at Irish papers and reading what was going on. I also looked for the 4-H equivalent in Ireland to get a feel for what farming was like.
"Cape May Stage has a wardrobe supervisor, so we worked to come up with the look for the show," she added.
"It's great to be home and in Cape May for September," Bourgeau said. "September has always been my favorite time here. It's also been nice to be home to see my family."
Costume designing isn't for everyone, the Cape May native said.
"The downside is that it can be a high-stress job because of deadlines, not enough money and not enough time to do what you'd really like to be able to do. It's also alot of time on the road and living in hotels, which isn't for everyone," she continued.
While she'd "love to be on Broadway," Bourgeau is realistic about her goals: Her next goal is to work her way up through LORT, the League of Resident Theatres, which is the largest professional theater association of its kind in the United States. There are 72 member theaters located in every major market in the U.S., including 29 states and the District of Columbia.
"There are several levels, and the A-level is Broadway, of course," Bourgeau said. "I'd like to get in at one of the lower levels and then work my way up. This winter I've been invited back to my university in New Hampshire to work as a guest artist. I like the cold weather, so I'm excited about going back.
"Someday, though, I hope to be on Broadway," she concluded.
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