One thing I love about the arts -- both covering the arts and participating -- is that each time, there's a new opportunity for learning.

Recently, I was cast in a nonmusical production of "Les Miserables," which will be staged at ANTIC in Cuyahoga Falls. The play, which is based on Victor Hugo's famous novel, opens Aug. 1.

This particular production presented two different and fun challenges. One, is I was cast as two different characters. My first character is the sister of the kindly bishop, whose assistance and forgiveness towards the main protagonist Jean Valjean helps Valjean turn his life around. The second is the wealthy aunt of the young hero Marius. This is the first time I've ever played two separate characters in the same show, so I worked on creating a different persona for both. The characters have some similarities -- both are proud and unsympathetic to the less fortunate. But I envisioned the sister as not quite as refined and a bit hyper, while the aunt is all about dignity and appearances.

The second challenge was costuming. With costumer Kristen Smith's blessing, I was given free reign in designing the costumes for my two characters. One reason was pragmatic. Anyone who has ever met me knows I'm very short -- about 4 feet, two inches tall -- and squat. Any costume ANTIC would have had on hand would have needed a massive rebuilding to fit me. But I always wanted to try my hand at designing my own costumes. I've been told I have a good eye for design. I designed my junior year high school homecoming formal dress and won first place in a small paper doll dress design contest two years in a row.

There is one hitch, though: I'm good at design. My sewing skills are another story. I can sew on a button. I can patch a rip. I can sew a slow, straight line on a sewing machine with close supervision without sewing my fingers together or doing (much) harm to the sewing machine. That's the extent of my sewing skills. Thankfully, I have a handy phone number to call when I encounter a situation such as this, and I dialed it as soon as I knew that I'd need help.

"Hi, Mom? Can you help me sew my costumes for the play?"

I love my mother. Unlike me, she's very adept with sewing and she's a good sport when it comes to my hare-brained schemes. She agreed to help me out. I even offered to try to sew the dresses myself, but she pointedly ignored this. Just as well, because what little sewing I did do -- a couple loose-stitched accessories I attached to the aunt's dress as decoration -- was slow, laborious and a bit frustrating (I did finish, though, and the result turned out rather well considering I'm all thumbs with a sewing needle). Sewing a whole dress would have led to blood, sweat, tears and not a little swearing.

The first dress mom gave me was actually an old one she had made for herself that was just the right cut and length. I am using this dress for the sister. I took the dress, bleached it to try to lighten some of the patterns in the fabric panels (I had mixed results with this), and then put the dress in a strong instant coffee and water mix to make the dress more uniform (this was more successful). Some things I tried to keep in mind with the design included the time period (1815, toward the end of the Empire period), when beiges, tans, browns and lighter neutral colors were the vogue (hence the coffee bath). The sister wouldn't be poor (in the novel, the bishop Monseigneur Myriel's family is from the noble ranks), but she comes from a small town, where fancy fabrics wouldn't have been readily available. I pictured her as fashionable but conservative.

The second dress was more of a challenge. Mom made the cut similar to the first one, but with longer, looser sleeves for me to modify and a larger skirt. The second act takes place in the spring and summer of 1832, the Romance era. I think of it stylistically as a cross between the Empire and Victorian. You still see the high waist from the Empire period (although not as high), but you start to see the fuller skirts that would later become the rage in the early and mid Victorian era. Notable about this time period is the emphasis on the sleeves and shoulders -- for both men and women. As an aristocrat, the aunt would wear richer fabric (I picked a warm burnt burgundy color, similar to a shade I saw in a woman's dress I saw online in a portrait in that time period). I found a pink and silver scarf, which I loose-stitched to the back of the neckline, and I had an antique-looking necklace with pink stones I loose stitched on the front of the neckline as decoration.

Ticket and show information

Mary Kay Dente is directing the show.

Shows are Fridays and Saturdays Aug. 1 through 16, with curtain at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and $6 for seniors and children under 12. This is a family-friendly production.

"Les Miserables" will be staged at Quirk Cultural Center, 1201 Grant Ave. in Cuyahoga Falls.


Phone: 330-541-9438