Every night of Step Sing, almost 1,500 performers step onto the grid, shedding their college student identity and embracing a new persona. Sorority sisters become lovable stuffed bears and fraternity brothers transform into singing magicians as each group mesmerizes the audience with their vocals and visuals. In these performances, costumes are essential to establishing characters.
For most Step Sing groups, the costume journey starts with Professor Mary Gurney.
As the illustrious instructor of costume and industrial design for Samford’s theatre department, Professor Mary Gurney is the ultimate resource for Step Sing groups when it comes to all things costume. Gurney is contracted by the Step Sing committee to bring her expertise, industry connections and sage advice to Step Sing’s costumes.
After selecting a theme, each group has a meeting with Gurney in October or November. With the help of sketches, mood boards and scribbled notes, each group troubleshoots their costume ideas with Gurney, who ensures that the costumes follow Step Sing’s guidelines and offers advice to each group on how to best accomplish their vision.
Director of Dudes-A-Plenty Adam Cason explained some of his group’s primary goals for costumes when they first started the process of ordering samples back in November.
“We want the costume to contribute to our characterization and help the audience understand the plot of our show,” Cason said. “In addition, we want the costumes to help us be seen on stage and not be (so dark that it) obscures our movements to the audience.”
Once a group considers every aspect and finalizes their ideas, Gurney points them in the direction of reliable companies to source their costumes or materials. For some groups, this is all the collaboration they do with Gurney. They place an order and come pick up their costumes when they are delivered. For other groups, the purchasing process is only the first step.
Many groups place orders for individual costume pieces and use the resources available in Gurney’s costume shop to bring their looks to the next level. For example, the bruising boxers of Alpha Tau Omega ordered their plain white t-shirts and royal blue athletic shorts and ironed on the vinyl Greek letters using the heat press in the costume shop. The zombies of Chi Omega received perfectly ordinary clothes in the mail, but after conferring with Gurney on the best methods for distressing fabric, transformed their civilian duds into ragged outfits befitting an undead legion.
“I love that. I love when the groups put their mark on the costumes, their own little special touches, and make the costume theirs and take real ownership in that process,” Gurney said.
But for some groups, ordering costume pieces isn’t really an option. Have you ever looked into ordering 75 beet vegetable costumes on Amazon? No? Well, that is a situation the students of Ignite faced this year. In those instances, groups can choose to have Gurney and her team of talented student workers make the entire costume.
Paid by the hour, these students work behind closed doors with Gurney to bring each group’s vision to life. One of these students, Freshman Kaitlynn McCandless, reflected that her favorite piece to work on was Ignite’s beet headpieces.
“We used elastic and different strips of colored tule in maroon and shades of green. It looked kind of like a tutu. And then you gather it all up, put a hairband on it and just trim the top,” McCandless shared. “I’m super excited to see the rest of their costume because I’ve only done the headpiece.”
With so many people working in the costume shop, it is a miracle that more Step Sing secrets don’t get out, but Gurney explained that secrecy is something that she takes incredibly seriously.
“I’ve spent a lot of time these past couple months behind locked doors. 1500 students trust me to keep their secret,” Gurney said. “It’s serious to the groups. It’s important to them, therefore it’s important to me.”
Many people have asked Gurney why she puts so much time and effort into Step Sing. But for her, the answer is simple.
“For three weeks, there are 1500 students on this campus that get to experience the joy of theatre and live entertainment that I get to experience every day of my life,” Gurney said. “Why would I not want to help them make the most of that?”