Tag Archives: North Carolina School of the Arts

Ben Zawacki: Professional Draper

For over 50 years, Staples Players has served as a pre-professional launching pad. Hundreds of alums have gone on to rewarding, highly regarded — and sometimes even lucrative — careers in acting, directing, dancing, lighting and set design.

Now, add costuming to the list.

As a child growing up in Westport, Ben Zawacki was inspired by Broadway shows, Lincoln Center ballets, and of course Players productions.

He did not want to act. He played in the pit orchestra as a freshman, but the next year discovered the costume crew.

Ben Zawacki, hard at work.

Ben Zawacki, hard at work.

Dee Alexander — who designed costumes for all of director David Roth’s shows — took Ben under her wing. Working on Players shows — as well as her New Canaan High productions — Ben learned the craft quickly, and well.

The summer before senior year, he did an 8-week program at Carnegie Mellon. He studied scene and lighting design, painting,  carpentry, and costume technology.

That last course opened up a new world. Costume technology became Ben’s major at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He learned everything from basic sewing skills to pattern making, advanced draping and tailoring.

From his first moment there, Ben wanted to become a professional draper in a costume shop.

A draper takes a costume designer’s rendering, and brings it to a wearable form. He creates all the patterns, and does all the costume fitting — while managing the team that cuts and stitches the fabric. They’re always on deadline.

Over 5 summers at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ben worked his way up from intern to head draper. Now he’s assistant draper at Tricorne LLC, building costumes for Broadway, TV, film, opera and dance.

These bias cut dresses for "Ten Cents a Dance" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival were made of very fine fabrics -- and they had to be completed in a tight time frame. It was one of Ben Zawacki's toughest assignments.

These bias cut dresses for “Ten Cents a Dance” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival were made of very fine fabrics — and they had to be completed in a tight time frame. It was one of Ben Zawacki’s toughest assignments.

“I love the magic of watching a designer’s sketch become a 3-D work of art that can withstand 8 shows a week,” Ben says.

A good draper needs a good sense of math — and a good sense of the human form.

“I went to school with self-taught sewing skills, and only able to read a commercial pattern,” Ben explains.

“Now I can hard-tailor a man’s coat, make bias cut and period gowns, all while creating my own patterns.” He is detail-oriented — not just about what the audience sees, but how a garment is finished on the inside. “We don’t take any shortcuts,” Ben says.

He certainly has not taken any shortcuts in his career — though he’s made a big impression, in a brief time.

And he makes it look sew easy.

Inside The Actors Studio

Audiences at “Book of Days” — Staples Players’ Black Box Theater production that opens tonight and runs through Sunday — will see a complex show.  Part murder mystery, part family saga, part comedy, it’s an intriguing, contemporary piece set in a small, present-day Midwestern town.

Part of the plot involves a play within a play.  It’s challenging to the actors — but that’s been the hallmark of Players since their founding 51 years ago.

And — as this cast proves — acting is not simply an after-school activity at Staples.  It’s a way of life — an all-consuming passion that often extends into college, and beyond.

In fact, of the 12 actors in “Book of Days,” nearly all will continue their theater education once they leave Westport.

Glenn Leo explains a crucial idea, as Shannon Walsh and Dan Shure listen. (Photo by Kerry Long)

Shannon Walsh, for example, will study acting next year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  A gymnast nearly full time until junior year, she leaped into acting full time.  She took classes in New York, joined Players — and less than 2 years later was accepted into a very competitive acting program.

Maya Hubbard will also got to NYU for acting — at the same Stella Adler Studio as Shannon.

Dan Shure will study theater directing at Skidmore College.

Max Stampa-Brown, whose “Book of Days” character speaks in tongues — talk about a challenge! — is headed to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, for acting.

The passion for theater extends to the tech crew too.  Sound technician Robinson Batteau will study audio production next year at SUNY-Purchase.

Jake Yarmoff -- the sheriff -- is engrossed in the action with Maya Hubbard and Alison Manning. (Photo by Kerry Long)

Current juniors are burnishing their resume this summer. Max Samuels will attend a summer acting program at Yale, while Matt Van Gessel, Whitney Andrews and Glenn Leo all plan to audition for college acting or directing programs.

(Matt might want to show colleges the trailer he made for the show — click here for a great YouTube clip.)

The cast and crew has had just 5 weeks to prepare for “Book of Days” — a compressed time frame that’s given them a taste of the real theater world.  They developed characters, memorized lines and blocked scenes with the seriousness this show demands.

“They’ve been an inspiration to us as directors,” said directors David Roth and Kerry Long.  “The way they’ve risen to the challenge has made us even more confident of their success at their college programs.”

Which is where so many Players end up, when their Staples days are done.

(“Book of Days” will be presented tonight, tomorrow and Saturday (May 13-15,  7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (May 16, 3 p.m.) in the Black Box Theater.  Click here to order tickets.)