"I'm the mom of the theatre department," says St. Ambrose designer Dianne Dye during an afternoon spent in the university's costume shop. "If people have a problem, or when they just want to gossip, here's the place to come."
"She is the mom," agrees the school's Galvin Fine Arts Center manager, Eileen Eitrheim. "Officially. Even I come down here when I have a problem."
I'd agree with the ladies' description of Dye's maternal countenance, except for one thing: Unlike Dye, my mother never greeted my arrival by offering me a piece of candy.
What mom did do - annually - was create elaborate, imaginative Halloween costumes for me and my siblings, and for the past seven years, Dianne Dye has embraced that same opportunity in the St. Ambrose theatre department.
On December 2 and 3, St. Ambrose will present the musical version of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe, simply titled Narnia, the latest in its run of annual family productions held the first weekend in December.
As anyone who's read the Narnia books - or anyone who saw last year's Oscar-winning movie - knows, magical costumes are practically a prerequisite for Narnia, especially if you plan on keeping the attention of the young kids the show is designed for. (The hour-long presentation will be enacted for area school groups on five separate occasions before Narnia's public performances. "It's actually a huge tradition for a lot of schools," says Eitrheim of St. Ambrose's family-musical program. "We're going to have between 6,000 and 7,000 people seeing this show.")
The challenge of creating, as Dye estimates, "17, 18 ... " costumes for the show's magical world of fauns and witches and unicorns was readily embraced by the school's resident costume designer. "I always enjoy the kids' show," she says, "because you can really go to town on different ideas."
And, for Narnia, she has.
One of the first costumes I'm shown is the one for the tale's central figure, the lion Aslan. But don't ask Dye how long it took to create. "It's hard to add up the time because I work here," she says in the costume shop, "and then I go home and work." She laughs. "I've sort of lived and breathed Narnia for the last month."
From the audience, people might not have a sense of just how many individual pieces are required for just one of Narnia's characters. "All of the costumes have a headpiece, a handpiece, a foot piece," lists Dye. "So yeah, there's lots of pieces that go into making the costume. But if I had him [Aslan] in a lion suit, that's just average. I mean, he's king of the jungle!"
For Narnia, costume rental - as opposed to design - wasn't a viable option for Dye: "You know, when you go fantasy, you really have to build them." She explains that she could rent from companies that have staged the show previously, but "sometimes they don't have the same ideas as I have."
This means trips to other cities, where Dye will sometimes buy items on sight, with or without St. Ambrose funds handy. "Some of my fabrics I bought way before I actually worked on them [the shows]," she says, "because if I saw a fabric that I thought would work, I bought it right away. Like the beaver tails? The stuff I'm making the beaver tails out of I bought months ago. I just happened to see it; I was in Chicago; I thought, 'Perfect beaver.'"
"There are very limited costume fabrics around," says Dye, regarding the difficulty in finding - in this area, at least - material to her liking. "We just have a couple of costume stores. So sometimes I have to order through the Internet; sometimes I make trips to Chicago to pick up fabric.
"This," she says, referencing the White Witch's wardrobe, "is all a bunch of different fabrics. Like, four different fabrics in this dress. I just sewed them together so I can get the effect I want."
And in case you were wondering - yeah, the Witch's bling is hand-crafted, too. "I like to really push it in the beginning," Dye says of her process, "so I have enough time for detail work at the end. To make everything just a little bit better."
Cast member Catie Osborn - who also volunteers her time in St. Ambrose's costume department - is proud to describe herself as the show's "lead Cruelie. I get thje crap kicked out of me by beavers."
Dye admits having particular fun with these creations - "They're evil Narnians," she explains, "so I could do anything I wanted with them" - and expresses her gratitude for the volunteers and work-study students she has assisting her in the costume shop. "I have really, really wonderful students," she says. "They are a real big part of my day here."
For Narnia - as for all of St. Ambose's theatrical productions - Dye's work involves a great deal of research. "I read the script," she says of Narnia. "I have seen the movie ... ; I bring up all the characters - the animals - on the Internet, and I study what they look like so that I can put them in human form. That's what's fun. I can totally use my imagination."
One of the Narnia saga's most beloved characters is Mr. Tumnus, the faun. Dye says that she enjoyed this costume's creation, but admits, "I did have a great idea to make him have real faun legs, but the choreographer said ... ." And Dye doesn't tell me what the choreographer said. She simply shakes her head.
Amazingly, despite its cultural prominence, Dye was new to the world of The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe before taking on St. Ambrose's latest endeavor. "You know what?" she admits. "I never knew of Narnia until this last year. I didn't. I don't know why. I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it wasn't all that popular when my kids were small ... . I'm not sure."
But despite her former unfamiliarity with this world of fantasy, Dye is confident that Narnia will be "a really good kids' play," adding that - despite the Lewis books' oft-dark material - parents shouldn't be hesitant about taking their youngsters. "We've cut out all the 'murder' words, and the magic wand will put the lion down; you know, no stabbing."
For tickets to Narnia, call the Galvin Fine Arts Center box office at (563) 333-6251.