By Sam McDonald 

If you need clothes that evoke a particularly dazzling, psychedelic vision of 18th century France, you can’t just drive to the mall or order up something online.

Your best bet might be to pick up needle and thread and — inch by inch, gusset by gusset — stitch them together yourself.

That’s the magic trick pulled off by some hard-working Old Dominion University students and costume design faculty member Meredith Magoun in preparation for “The Revolutionists,” an ODURep play opening Thursday, Feb. 15, at University Theatre.

Written by Lauren Gunderson, “The Revolutionists” is described as, “a fast-paced dark comedy about art and activism, feminism and terrorism, and how we actually go about changing the world.”

Set during the French Revolution, the story focuses on four women who agitate for progress while trying to evade the executioner’s clutches. Three of the women are historical figures: Olympe de Gouges, Charlotte Corday, and Marie Antoinette. The fourth, Marianne Angelle, is a fictional, composite character described as a Caribbean freedom fighter. The Haitian Revolution took place between 1791 and 1804, overlapping with the upheaval in France.

In the ODU production, the characters are decked out in handmade gowns and corsets, knee breeches and petticoats. Creating those elaborate looks added up to a monumental — but satisfying — sewing challenge.

“We went for a fantasy dreamscape, but with a sense of modernity,” Magoun said, describing the style she created in collaboration with the show’s director, Kate Clemons. “We wanted clothes that were true to the silhouettes and feelings of the period.”

They also wanted to inject some contemporary flavor. Magoun took inspiration from designs of Alexander McQueen, Moschino, and Vivienne Westwood, for example. Colors include fuchsias, greens, golds, pinks and blues that glow like neon.

“It’s like a punk-rock, rococo acid dream,” said Magoun, smiling, “a kaleidoscope. There’s this gorgeous opulence, but it’s surrounded by the world falling apart around them.

“These are four women who live in an incredibly tumultuous time.”

Four students standing with teacher in a group photo

Members of the costume team for “The Revolutionists” pose inside the Stables Theatre workshop. Pictured, left to right, are Evalee Merritt, Kari Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Costume Design Meredith Magoun, Mya Houston, and Marshall de Doelder. Photo by Sam McDonald

Director Clemons is elated over how the wardrobe came together. “The costumes are bold and brazen, and representative of each of the complicated woman they clothe,” she wrote. “Audiences are going to be head over heels for them.”

To accomplish this feat of stitchery, Magoun sewed relentlessly alongside a team of six ODU students working either as part of their theatre studies program or as volunteers. “We did a mountain of work,” Magoun said.

Kari Wilson, a freshman theatre arts student from Hampton, took on many jobs. One was shaping the plastic or metal “whale bones” needed for corsets. “I had to go into the scene shop and borrow a pair of shears to cut them down with,” she said. “I used a big grinder for the metal ones. I wore eye protection. Sparks were flying.”

While she’s been involved in theater since middle school, Wilson’s work on “The Revolutionists” represented her first costuming adventure and her first true sewing experience.

“I went from never having touched a sewing machine to helping to make a dress from centuries ago,” Wilson said. “That’s a big leap.”

Wilson described good camaraderie in the costume shop, with Magoun doling out the tasks based on each student’s skill level. Many of the pieces were group projects.

Wilson marveled at Magoun’s design and people skills.

“She’s amazing. I never feel judged for not knowing something,” Wilson said. “In the beginning, I told her I don’t know how to use a sewing machine, but can I still help? She said, ‘Of course. Start with something you can do and work up to something you can’t.’”

Meanwhile, Mya Houston, a sophomore game design and criticism major from South Boston, Virginia, came to the shop with lots of sewing experience. 

Woman sewing clothes

Mya Houston, a student from South Boston, Virginia, uses a pattern during the early stages of making a garment. Photo by Sam McDonald

Houston started sewing in middle school, inspired by her grandmother who would make everything from curtains to tiny stuffed animals. “I’ve been making stuff ever since,” Houston said.

One day, she strolled past the Stables Theatre on Monarch Way, the historic building which houses the costume shop, and noticed the sewing machines, fabric and mannequins.

“It intrigued me,” she said. “I got in touch with Meredith and asked if I could help make the costumes.” The answer was, of course, an emphatic, “yes.”

A volunteer worker, Houston said she enjoys being around the theater and helping behind the scenes. She also likes learning new sewing techniques.

Is there a connection between sewing and game design?

“They satisfy my itch to make something,” Houston said. “I like to take something I imagine and bring it into reality. Both fit that perfectly.”

The director of “The Revolutionists,” Kate Clemons, predicted that the show will connect with student audiences.

“It has all the fun of a period piece in visual design, but the sound of the play is entirely post-modern,” Clemons wrote. “The language is contemporary and fast like an episode of ‘Gilmore Girls,’ and our scenes are linked by mashups of pop anthems.

“I knew our production could straddle the line between the old and the new to create an experience that would be accessible and challenging for our audience and educational for our student actors and designers.”


ODURep presents “The Revolutionists”

What: A play written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Kate Clemons. The show features actors Reicse Owen, Leila Bryant, Angelina Paquin and Abby Pregitzer.

When: February 15-25, 2024. Feb. 15-17 and 22-24, 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 25, 2:00 p.m. 

Where: Goode Theatre on Monarch Way at 46th Street