An in depth look at the women of musical theatre who continue to shatter the glass ceiling of the industry. Highlighting and celebrating vivacious creators from all walks of life who have left a notable mark on and off the stage. These artists continue to forge ahead in widening doors and windows for all that follow. We salute these monumental Golden Tokens for continuously elevating the standard.
The youngest of six, Brenda was born to Jamaican parents in Birmingham, England. She moved to Canada in 1984 as a newlywed to start building her own family in Calgary, Alberta. With the exception of one aunt in Edmonton, she had no other family support in her new country. Her three children were born between 1985 and 1990 and in the 90s, they settled in Leduc, just south of Edmonton. She was a housewife and mother until her youngest started school, then she turned her sewing hobby into a career and started working for a novelty photography shop at West Edmonton Mall (and formerly Fort Edmonton Park), The Antique Photo Parlour. The shop offered a wide selection of costume dresses and outfits with props and backgrounds for period style sepia toned photos. With the help of a pattern drafting class, she built up her sewing skills and began helping to add new costumes to the store.
After a decade there, she had built upwards of 50 new dresses for the company, ranging from Victorian fashions to roaring 20’s and Western Cowboys and Cowgirls many of which are still in use and some have even been featured in the Alberta shot TV show, Heartland. She switched careers and took on an office job in the oil industry which she stayed at for another 10 years before being laid off.
Wanting to be in a field that brought her joy, she started her own alteration business to get back to sewing. It wasn’t until she was flipping through the program at her son’s performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre and saw a thank you to the seamstresses, that she realized her experience at the Antique Photo Parlour could translate to the theatre.
After reaching out and offering her services, she has been working in their wardrobe department since 2017.
1. What motivates you to continue to create?
I love a challenge. Working in the theatre, there is always something different and challenging. For instance, when I worked on Lend me a Tenor I made an outfit from scratch just from a designer’s sketch. For Sister Act, Leona Brausen tasked me with building multiple layered tear away suits from only watching a sample video of how the quick change was meant to look. I really love working with new designers each show because there is always more to learn from them. I also enjoy building relationships working with repeat designers. Leona always tasks me with more and more challenging projects each time I work with her.
2. How has COVID-19 affected the Wardrobe department?
I’ve worked on 13 shows at Mayfield since 2017 and it would have been more if not for COVID. Because of the pandemic we had to postpone both the spring and summer shows. We were able to open 2 shows since September, but our current show was forced into hiatus because of rising case numbers in our region. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to revisit it briefly in the new year! COVID has made the wardrobe department a lot smaller, in terms of staffing. This has made my role more prominent. When I started with the theatre, I only worked during the 3 week rehearsal period as a seamstress. Because of my sewing skills, though, through COVID they’ve kept me on during the shows to do the laundry and repairs on the costumes as needed.
3. What are some of your favourite types of shows to design/dress?
My favourites have been the musicals, the bigger shows. They have been the ones I’ve seen as more creative. They’ve stretched my imagination the most. I was most proud to get the chance to work with my baby, Hal Wesley Rogers, on Sister Act.
4. What do you most enjoy about being a costumer?
I love being able to use my creativity. I love getting a task from a designer and running with it and taking the idea just a bit further and seeing their response to it. Like a conversation through textiles. I also love being part of the “magic” of theatre. I remember seeing a quick change in a production of Cinderella and being awed by it. I love the challenge of making those moments real.
5. How do you approach storytelling through your design?
My role is to bring the garment into the real world. It’s important to listen to the actor and the designer and make sure the piece is built to tell the story it’s meant to. Making sure it’s a fabric the actor can do all their choreography in, while still looking good. Reinforcing it in the areas that the choreography might cause it to wear out. And then I keep it clean so it’s shining on stage every night.
6. Have you noticed a difference in dressing BIPOC artists vs. non BIPOC artists?
Not especially. I’ve worked with some difficult to dress artists, but their race was never at the center of the issues. Divas will be divas regardless of race.
7. Does representation matter off stage just as much as it matters on?
Ya, I think so. Working with people from different backgrounds makes us see that the theatre world isn’t just for one type of person.
We'd like to thank Brenda for taking the time to answer our questions. Check out some of her work in the gallery below!
A tear-away outfit in action! Constructed by Brenda Rogers.