30 Mar Spotlight on Costumes
The pandemic hurt performing art organizations like the Wagon Wheel in compounding ways that are still presenting challenges for reopening. But an often overlooked entity of the art industry just as crippled is the theatre artists who run their own businesses and gig workers. Stephen Hollenbeck, founder, and owner of Dramatic Images is one of those thousands of theatre workers.
A Dream Was Born…
Stephen has been a returning member of the Wagon Wheel Professional Theatre’s staff for 13 years. His first production at the Wagon Wheel was the Holiday performance of A Christmas Carol. Stephen has been designing costumes for more than 35 years, including working as the Head Costume Designer for Costume World in Florida for a number of years before returning to Indianapolis in the early 2000s at which time he opened his own costume design and rental business, Dramatic Images.
Stephen built Dramatic Images from the ground up. “I started the business on my own. No loan. No outside financial support. I worked job by job. Designing costumes for schools and theatre companies, building everything, and slowly amassing a stock of costumes for all kinds of shows.”
Costume designing for the Wagon Wheel became a staple job each summer for Stephen, and an opportunity to quickly grow his costume stock. “Building shows for the Wagon Wheel is one of the professional theatres I work with.” Stephen also works regularly with the Actors Theatre of Indiana in Carmel, and The Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis. “But I got my start in the area at Footlite Musicals. They let me work out of an apartment they owned when I first started Dramatic Images and I served on their board for several years after that.” Stephen and Dramatic Images also do a lot of work with high school programs across the state and nation. “Some schools take exceptional pride in their arts programming. Arts programming is so important for schools and youth,” Stephen said.
Covid Strikes Small Business Owners
When the pandemic hit, it was at the height of Stephen’s spring work with many schools’ musical theatre productions taking place. “The last show I costumed that actually made it to production was Bye, Bye Birdie in April 2020.” Other schools were not so lucky. Stephen had early in the spring wrapped up all costume designs and alterations for his high school alma mater’s production of The Music Man. “On dress rehearsal night, they had to tell the kids the show was being canceled.” It was devastating news.
Some shows Stephen was designing or renting for were postponed. “I gave as many schools as I could a credit for what they had already paid me if a show had to be postponed or canceled before it could be finished.” But for the last year, Stephen has scraped by as the company he built from scratch has tottered on extinction.
“Working in theatre most of my life, I have always been good at saving pennies and living within my means. We made due. I built masks, curtains for some theatres. Unexpected support came from old friends.” That was one of the beautiful things Stephen looked back on, “random old friends would show up with a gift or check.” Stephen himself has always had a generous spirit, supporting the Wagon Wheel Jr program through costume donations and financial support. “We did our best to give back how we could too – providing a meal here or there for a friend in need, donating masks, whatever we could do.”
Stephen’s work started to slowly return this month. “Unemployment stopped coming in October for me after they had to review my records. Something I didn’t know – when your unemployment is under review they shut it off completely until it is settled. It is still under review… I was one month away from shutting down the business. I couldn’t keep sinking rent and personal finances into a business that couldn’t recover.”
Now, Stephen is working on about 8 shows (lighter than usual this time of year) with many postponed productions returning this spring. And of course, the Wagon Wheel’s 65th Summer Season is slated to return this June!
There’s No Place Like Home…
“Seeing everyone again this summer means the world to me,” Stephen said as he shared about preparing for coming back to the Wagon Wheel. Prior to the pandemic and the season being postponed a year, Stephen had already begun working on and even building costumes for the opening show, The Wizard of Oz. “I have been collecting fabric and ideas for The Wizard of Oz for two years now. I want the return to the Wagon Wheel to be bigger and better than ever before!” Stephen said his designs for the Wizard of Oz draw from all the classic and new classics we know and love of the story – the original motion picture, The Wiz musical, and Wicked. “The audiences at the Wagon Wheel never receive sub-par artistic performances, but I want them to receive some unexpected surprises this year from the costumes in the Wizard of Oz!”
Stephen’s final words were “Thank God the curtain is rising again and we lived to tell the tale!” And his final words of encouragement to all of us are, “Support your local art organizations and restaurants!”