I am the resident costume craftsperson for PlayMakers Repertory Company, which means that I’m in charge of the dye facility and the elements of costumes that are not created by a tailor or dressmaker — hats, shoes, gloves, parasols, masks, armor and more. I’m also a teaching artist for the department of dramatic art. I teach a cycle of four classes in rotation for the graduate program in costume production.
I’ve always been a writer, crafting short stories and blog posts and novel drafts. When I went to college, I started out as a theater major and wound up in the costume area because I could sew. After graduation, when I was working at Harvard University at the American Repertory Theatre, I took some creative writing classes and an introduction to editing class and a grant-writing class. At the time, one of my professors encouraged me to get a master’s degree, but I didn’t see how I could do it and work full time. Eventually I wound up pursuing my MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans because you could do all of your residencies in the summertime. I was able to dove-tail it with interesting theater work as well. For my first residency, I went to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which has a museum of indigenous masks, and the curator is a Tar Heel graduate.
I enjoy all different kinds of writing, which probably has something to do with the mindset of a professional theater practitioner. I’ve been writing my blog, La Bricoleuse, for over 10 years now. I started it because there was a lot of innovation happening in the craftwork area of our industry but reference information was not keeping pace. I continue to share the projects we do, for instance we’re doing a lot of cool things with 3-D printing technology and applications to costume production.
In my period accessories class, I knew I wanted to include a project where students had to construct a parasol. Parasols can be deceptively complicated. I began to look at what was written about the process, and the only thing I could find was a handout from a workshop that a historical re-enactor had done. So I decided to write the book, Sticks in Petticoats: Parasol Manufacture for the Modern Costumer. Print-on demand through Lulu was a great way to make that niche information accessible.
Last summer, I was awarded the Barbara Deming Fund Grant for women writers. I am on hiatus from PlayMakers in the summer, and so usually what I do is go elsewhere to work in the field to stay on top of what’s happening in theater. Two summers ago I got to work on busting out the final costume push on Hamilton right before it opened. This past year I had already made arrangements to house-sit for a colleague who was designing an opera in Austria for a month. So I still went to New York, but the Deming Fund allowed me to set up my makeshift office in a reading room at the Brooklyn Public Library and just work on writing.
I wrote a short story several years ago that got anthologized in Resurrection Engines. You chose a piece of 19th century literature and reinterpreted it through the lens of alternative history or steampunk technology. I chose Treasure Island as my inspiration because maritime history and piracy interested me. When I reread the book, the thing that stood out most to me is there’s only one female character in it, and that’s Jim’s mom, but mention is also made in two places of Long John Silver’s wife. She is a free woman of color, and he entrusts her with his personal finances over anyone else. So my short story was sort of a prequel about that woman’s life and what led her to meet and marry Long John Silver. The whole time I was thinking, “This is much bigger than a 7,000-word story,” so I began to look at how I could extrapolate it into a longer-form work like a novella or a novel. So for the Deming grant, I spent a month working on the project.
Before that, in May 2016, I won a residency to Wildacres Retreat, off the Blue Ridge Parkway. You are given a cabin up in the woods with no Internet. It was fantastic, and it was probably the most productive week I could have imagined. I wrote about 40,000 words on a novel draft that week, which is ridiculous, but the only thing you have to do is write or stare at the mountains.
I love coming to work every day, but writing — especially novels or short stories — that’s just me. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to tell the stories of theater in my day job, but that’s not the only method for telling stories I’m interested in. Stories are what make us human.
Learn more about Rachel Pollock’s work at http://www.rachelpollock.net. Artists After Hours is an occasional feature in which we interview faculty, staff and students who pursue artistic avocations in areas not directly related to their day job and studies. Profiles are archived at our Carolina’s Human Heart website, celebratehumanities.unc.edu. Know someone we should feature? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.