NOTE: ‘Art and Artist’ is an ongoing NewsCenter series profiling behind-the-scenes artists at the Denver Center. Previous features have highlighted Scenic Designers, Stage Managers and Teaching Artists; as well as a Technical Director, Box Office Manager, Graphic Designer and others.
DCPA Theatre Company tailor retiring after opening of Twelfth Night
In 1982, tailor Sheila Morris joined the DCPA Theatre Company Costume Department, assisting with costumes for The Tempest. She is retiring this week with the opening of Twelfth Night — perfectly bookending her 37-year career with two large Elizabethan shows.
Morris became involved in costuming during her undergraduate program, when she took a winter-term course in Costume Design at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, Until that point, she had been pursuing a degree in music education and, though she enjoyed performing in the orchestra and marching band, she wasn’t a fan of the hours spent alone in rehearsal studios. Morris switched her major junior year, as she enjoyed the collaborative atmosphere of the theatre as a technician because it was much less competitive than her work in the music department.
“Backstage, it’s a bunch of people coming together to work on a common goal: Collaboration,” Morris said. “That’s what I love about theatre.”
Morris earned her master’s degree in Costume Design from California State University Sacramento. She and two others from her program then moved to Buffalo, where the Studio Arena Theatre was transitioning from a community theatre into a professional theatre. During the transition, the theatre had an urgent need for a costume shop. Morris and her colleagues were hired, affording Morris her first professional opportunity.
Morris stayed in Buffalo for three years, before following her desire to move back west. On the way back to California, someone she knew mentioned a vacancy at the then 3-year-old Denver Center. She was hired and moved to Denver a month before her starting date to become acclimated to the city.
“I made the mistake of going in and finding the costume shop,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to say ‘hi,’ and they asked me if I could start on Monday.” At the time, the Theatre Company was working on a huge production of The Tempest, and they needed extra hands. “Elizabethan is really complicated,” she said. “You cut the fabric up into little pieces and then sew them together completely differently, like a quilt. But it has to fit someone.”
Including her time at Studio Arena, Morris has now been working in costumes for 40 years. In her time at the Denver Center, Morris has worked under five Artistic Directors and two shop managers.
Morris specializes in men’s wear and period-style costumes. “My father was a mechanical engineer. I grew up looking at things from an engineering perspective,” she said. Morris prefers tailoring because it is so cut and dry. She develops her patterns with scale rulers and compares what she does to drafting because it is so mathematical.
“Sheila always manages to continue to make me look good.” – Sam Gregory
Award-winning actor Sam Gregory has been working with the DCPA Theatre Company off and on since 1992. Gregory and Morris met 27 years ago while working on Tartuffe, his first show at the Denver Center. Gregory said the costume department always has done a wonderful job creating costumes that embody the characters perfectly. “No acting required!”
“Sheila and I always have a good time in fittings,” Gregory said with a laugh. “She always manages to continue to make me look good, which was easy when I was 29 – and now is quite a challenge.”
Gregory said Morris is “funny, kind and so damn talented.” Others who have interacted with her at the DCPA say she is relentless in seeking perfection. She always brings her “A” game and positive personality, Gregory said.
Morris recalled a costume she built for Gregory for a production of Amadeus. “He played one of the Venticellis,” she said. “The suit had a stiff high collar, and I remember Sam saying. ‘I love this; I can’t move!’ ” Morris said Gregory used the costume to intentionally inform his portrayal of his character, more than just by what it looked like – but by what it felt like. “Sam not only accepts how a costume feels, he glories in it,” Morris said.
One important truth she has deduced over the years, Morris said with a laugh: “Women lie about their dress size – and men lie about their height.” The tailor has to measure the actors anyway, “and measurements don’t lie,” she said.
Costume Crafts Director Kevin Copenhaver is approaching his 30th season with the DCPA Theatre Company, and he has worked with Morris for the entire journey. “I was the new kid in town, and Sheila was very welcoming to this long-haired, hippie-looking, new-waver kid,” he said.
Over the years, Morris and Copenhaver have been tasked with some wacky projects involving the intersection of tailoring, costume building and costume crafts. “We once built, together, an outfit for an actor that had to magically expand and fill up with air, on cue,” Copenhaver said. “The character was so full of himself that he had to puff up and eventually explode on stage.
“Sheila was there as I designed my first show for the Denver Center, A Servant of Two Masters. She helped clothe my dreams of the commedia dell’arte, and she was very patient as I worked side-by-side with my mentor, the brilliant Andrew Yelusich, when we conspired and co-designed Pierre.
Copenhaver has designed many outfits that Morris has tailored to beautiful effect. Some memorable examples: “Our signature Fred coats from many iterations of A Christmas Carol – including uptight Scrooges and fanciful Mr. Fezziwigs. Royal Greek Chitons and Himation’s for Oedipus Rex. Fearsome frocks for an ancient Dracula. Beautiful suits of clothes for not one, but two Doctor Frankensteins. Weirdly pseudo-Victorian judicial gowns for a vicious Judge Turpin and wonderfully moldy velvet organ grinder clothes for Tobias Ragg in Sweeney Todd.
Morris’ retirement begins next week, but she says she will be back occasionally to help when needed as a freelancer.
Madison Stout is a receptionist and member of the security team as well as a contributing writer for the Communications Department at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. After graduating from Grove City College, where she was an editor and staff writer for The Collegian, she continues to pursue writing as an Education and Community Engagement journalist at the DCPA. She also acts and recently performed in Phamaly Theatre Company’s production of “Come to Your Senses.”
Twelfth Night: Ticket information
Hilarious hijinks. Unrequited love. Gender-bending disguises. The clumsiness of romance is on display in every way in this Shakespearean comedy. Separated from her twin brother after a shipwreck in Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man to work in the local household of Duke Orsino. The closer they become, the more Viola gets acquainted with Orsino’s crush, the beautiful noblewoman Olivia. Much to their dismay (and to your delight), the trio is inevitably thrust into a love triangle of mistaken identity and wanton foolishness. Overflowing with quick wit and titillating trysts, this standout play by The Bard is sure to please with its captivating characters and one of his most dynamic heroines
- Dates: Performances through December 22
- Where: Space Theatre
- Genre: Romantic comedy with music
- Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here: