Stitching for the Stage: Costumer Sandy Short

Making the onstage magic happen for Virginia Musical Theatre, Governor's School and more
Costumer designer Sandy Short
BEST DRESSED: Sandy Short backstage with costumes for a Virginia Musical Theatre performance (Photo by Eric Lusher)

By Ava Baker

By the time Sandy Short was in the second grade, her two younger sisters occupied much of their mother’s attention. A project she had started with her mother’s help—creating a mini wardrobe for Sandy’s Barbies—was now on the back burner. But Sandy, having recently received a cheap Singer sewing machine, decided to take on the important task of clothing her Barbies herself. Fast forward a few decades, and the Barbies have gotten, well, a little bigger.

She had always been fond of sewing garments, but it was Sandy’s daughter, Taylor, who got her into costuming for the stage. Taylor went to a Catholic school that was eager to put on a variety of musical productions, and it turned out the costume department needed all the help it could get. For one production of Aladdin, for example, Sandy ended up churning out a total of 72 kid-sized costumes from scratch.

When Taylor was starting high school and was accepted into the Musical Theatre Department of Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA) in Norfolk, Sandy offered her valuable experience in hopes of continuing her passion backstage. In 2012, Virginia Musical Theatre (VMT), a regional theater company that frequently collaborates with GSA’s Musical Theatre Department, was doing a production of the musical Hairspray when a nasty case of pneumonia forced their head costumer out of the job just a few days before opening night. That’s when Sandy got a call.

“It was scary,” she remembers, “I had never done anything on that kind of a scale before.” Since then, she’s gradually taken on more responsibility in the costume departments of both VMT and GSA. Self-taught from the beginning, over the years she has learned by doing. Besides a needle and thread, organization is her most important tool.

“There are so many moving parts,” she explains. “The thing that makes a show isn’t just the dress you’re wearing.” It’s also the shoes, the earrings, the wig, the hat, the gloves, the belt, even the undergarments. Being meticulously detailed is also essential, especially when it comes to shows that take place in a particular time period. She has always been diligent about historical accuracy from head to toe. The last thing she wants an audience member thinking about during an intense power ballad is why the actor isn’t wearing the proper spats.

Her diligence paid off. Before long, she was working on local productions left and right in addition to her day job as office coordinator for Eastern Virginia Medical School ‘s Brock Institute for Community and Global Health. Also under her belt are two awards for Best Costumes from Broadway World Central Virginia. At the start of 2020, she had five shows lined up back-to-back, two of which were on the rack and ready to go to the dressing rooms. Then, suddenly, live theater became incredibly dangerous.

“Everything shut like a slamming door,” she remembers. As a result of the pandemic, all her projects were either put on hold or cancelled entirely. A year later, she’s excited for theater’s comeback. Her first show back with VMT will be one that patrons have been anticipating since spring of 2020, when COVID forced its postponement. Audience favorite Mamma Mia will be dazzling theater-goers starting October 8 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts.

Sandy is primed and ready to get back into the thrill of a live production. There’s a lot of stress that comes with the limited time frames of regional theater (for VMT, for example, there are just three weeks between the first rehearsal and the last bow), but once she sees her concept come to life under the stage lights, every late-night stitch becomes worth it. She is also happy to be back designing shows at the Governor’s School, where the students affectionately refer to her as “Mama Short.”

She strives to build a relationship with all the performers she works with—a sense of trust that allows them to come to her about anything from a popped button to a hazardous hemline. When it comes to the audience, no matter what the production, Sandy’s goal is for viewers to walk away having not given her efforts  a second thought. When the costumes melt into the world that everyone on the production has worked so hard to create, she knows she’s done her job.

Sandy Short’s propensity for behind-the-scenes magic has made her a beloved staple of the Coastal Virginia theater scene. She proves that not all heroes wear capes, but if she needed one, she could whip up something fabulous just in time for curtain.

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