Melanie Burgess: Costume Designer

Thanks to her kid's Halloween costumes, this local costumer is in high demand at local theaters.

NAME: Melanie Burgess
OCCUPATION: Costume designer
ON CAREER PATHS: “Sometimes I think I was trying to find acting and costume design found me.”
FAVORITE GIG SO FAR: Jesus Christ Superstar at the Village Theatre
SEE HER WORK: In Inherit the Wind (Strawberry Theater Workshop; through 10/8), Harold and the Purple Crayon (Seattle Children’s Theatre; through 10/30) and Sylvia (Seattle Rep; 11/11–12/11).

Many moms consider making costumes for school plays a chore. But for North Seattle–based Melanie Burgess, it was the beginning of a career. After working as an actress, Burgess, 53, discovered her true talent through her daughters’ school plays, where she first tried her hand at crafting costumes for the stage. In 2002, she completed an M.F.A. in costume design at the University of Washington, and has worked with Seattle theater’s crème de la crème on such recent plays as All My Sons at Intiman and Three Tall Women at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Burgess won a 2010 Gregory Award (honoring the best in Seattle theater) for costume design and currently has several big projects in the works, including Seattle Opera’s Attila. Just don’t ask her what she’s wearing for Halloween. Jana Moseley

SM: Did you always want to be a costume designer?

MB: I earned my undergrad in theater [from Boise State] and worked as an actress for eight years. When I became a mom in 1986, everything shifted. I started designing costumes for [my kids’] plays at Lakeside School. Linda Hartzell, of Seattle Children’s Theatre, was a teacher there, and really pushed me to do this as a career. I always thought I wanted to be on stage, but I’m much more comfortable with my art being up there, rather than me.

SM: Explain your process for creating costumes.

MB: The first part is working with the whole creative team—talking about the play, the concept and what we’re going to say. I go through the script and do a lot of character analysis—I try to get an image of who this person is. I start the sketching process...then supervise the costume build. Then there’s the dress rehearsal, adjusting things and seeing it three-dimensionally. My job is finished on opening night.

SM: How did it feel to win the 2010 Gregory Award?

MB: The greatest honor is that it was the first time they’ve had the category for designers. So it was really great to be the first person to win. It’s enough when you’re doing something you’re really passionate about, and you think, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this.” To be honored in that way is the icing on the cake.

SM: Any costume tips for Halloween?

MB: [Laughs.] I actually really hate Halloween. There’s always this expectation that I’ll come up with something amazingly brilliant. It’s really about coming up with an idea—if you don’t have an idea, thrift stores are a great place to start.