As a theater professor, Sheila Tabaka has been directing — and making most of the costumes for — the spring play at Southwest Minnesota State University for years. But she had never had a request like this.
Her designs for two elegant 19th-century gowns, for the play “The Heiress,” caught the eye of a British director after photos were posted on Twitter. Now the gowns are on their way to appear on the London stage.
“I, of course, have never been to London, but my dresses are going,” said Tabaka, who is taking vicarious pleasure in her costumes’ journey.
Tabaka, who has taught theater arts at the university in Marshall, Minn., for 15 years, said “The Heiress” is known for its fabulous costumes. The famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head won her first Oscar for the 1949 film version. In this particular drama, Tabaka noted, the costumes play an outsized role.
Based on the 1880 Henry James novel “Washington Square,” it’s the story of a shy, insecure and wealthy young woman and the handsome suitor who may — or may not — be after her money.
“She needs to have six dresses — she’s an heiress,” Tabaka said. One is “an amazing red dress” — written into the script — that purposely overwhelms the character’s mousy personality. “She’s really shy, but she has a lot of money, so all of these gowns kind of wear her,” Tabaka explained. “That red dress really symbolizes how, in her own home, she’s basically out of her element.”
Tabaka found “this beautiful cherry-red fabric,” an iridescent satin taffeta, to fashion into a gown. As the April premiere neared, a colleague posted photos on Twitter.
Across the ocean, Patricia Driver, director of the New Stagers, a London community theater that operates “on a shoestring,” happened to see them. “I know this is a long shot,” she wrote, “ … but I wonder if perhaps you’d consider loaning us the costumes?”
Tabaka was happy to share. She took photos of each dress, front and back, and e-mailed them to Driver.
They discovered that the star of the London production was the same size as the university’s “heiress.” And they settled on two costumes: the red dress and a peach gown from another pivotal scene.
This week, two colleagues, who happened to be traveling to London, will deliver them.
“People have said it’s a testament to the power of Twitter,” said Driver in an e-mail interview. “But I think it speaks well of theatre folk, wherever they are from.” She said she was “bowled over” by Tabaka’s willingness to help.
Tabaka said she’s delighted the two dresses will have another star turn. “This just all seemed to work out.”