November 20, 2008

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Mary's new home
Gamache helps long-time theater costumer

By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Mary Selvoski could probably do without the drama she's seen over the past year, although she is in the theater industry. Twice since 2007, she's had to move the thousands of costumes she builds and rents to actors. Friends and family helped search for an affordable place to keep them.

Proprietor of Mary's Closet, Selvoski has been costuming for more than 40 years. She's helped many companies that couldn't pay full costuming fees (or even close), and let students use costumes for school projects for free, among other good deeds.

Part of the reason Selvoski could be so generous was that the Cohen family was. They leased space to Mary's Closet in the Mill West Annex at 195 McGregor St. in Manchester for a token fee. New Thalian Players also stored and rented out their costumes at Mary's Closet until last year, when Brady Sullivan bought the building. The developer gave Mary's Closet notice that it had to leave the Mill West location. When Selvoski had no affordable place to put her massive inventory quickly, Brady Sullivan provided basement space at 195 McGregor St. through this October.

At the same time that John Clayton published a column calling for a property owner to help Mary's Closet in the Oct. 27 Union Leader, Dr. Alan Kaplan of Manchester Community Theatre Players was in discussions with real estate investor Ben Gamache. It's thanks to Gamache that Mary's Closet is now in residence on the third floor of 20 West Auburn St. in Manchester. Kaplan was instrumental in negotiating, Selvoski said.

With the move-out deadline nearing, Brady Sullivan gave Selvoski until Nov. 23, almost a month's extension, to find a new location. If Gamache had not stepped in, the alternative was to pack everything into "box cars" and plant them on son Jim LePine's yard in Londonderry. LePine has joined Mary's Closet with Selvoski and her husband Joe.

There was so little notice about the big move that Selvoski was thankful she could get help, she said. Last time, Mari Keegan, who's active in local theater, quickly gathered about 30 volunteers to roll racks across a lot from the Annex to the temporary basement space.

Mari's crew expected this move to take two weekends, but only one was required. Between 30 and 35 people volunteered with Selvoski and her family Saturday, Nov. 15. Work went on from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. and started again at 9 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 16. The family and some volunteers finished moving racks before 4 p.m.

Selvoski's daughter Dawna Johonnett of Bedford said the weekend was "unbelievable ... It went so smoothly." Selvoski and her children lauded the efforts of Bob and Marie Mailhot. Bob drove the RE/MAX Marie Mailhot (www.mariesellsnh.com) box truck all weekend between the spaces, while Marie and their grandchildren volunteered. Volunteer John Campanello (www.betweengigs.com) said the Mailhots have helped community theater in the past.

This space is slightly smaller at 5,900 square feet than the 7,000 Mary's Closet had before, but a high ceiling allows for double racks. Because Linens N Things is going out of business, Selvoski was able to buy their rolling step ladders. Johonnett said they think Mary's Closet has about 8,000 costumes, but they also have about 500 bins of props and accessories, like belts and hats, which could equal another 8,000 items.

"Wait until you see the sewing area," Selvoski said. She's looking forward to her new space. "It's so clean," she said. The building has a freight elevator and a covered loading dock. D & D Cabinets offered to let Mary's Closet use a street-level display window.

"To me it was one of the best community projects," Selvoski said of the move.

Selvoski's five children and their families with a few volunteers prepared over the previous week. (Selvoski's young granddaughter Deliah Smith pointed out that she packed up the costumes.) On Saturday, Brandon Mallard brought his Phoenix Academy members. Kaplan and MCTP members came, and the Holy Family Academy sent 12 students. George Piehl helped financially and with labor. (Selvoski costumed for his Stage One Productions for eight years.) Selvoski supervised emptying the old space, while theater folk Betty Thompson organized the new one and Kim Miracle hung the costumes over the weekend.

Selvoski expects to be up and running again for alterations and design in about two weeks.

"We're going to move forward," Selvoski said. This will be a chance to expand the design business, she said. Selvoski said she's speaking with Saint Anselm College about bringing in costuming apprentices or interns, and maybe a student to build a Web site.

New England professional and community companies rent from Mary's Closet, but Selvoski is now shipping Beauty and the Beast costumes to Miami. A choreographer who worked at Bedford Youth Performing Company requested the long-distance rental.

Kaplan said in July that the end of Mary's Closet would have been "a big loss because there isn't really anybody to step in." He thinks recognition of Mary's Closet as a resource was probably why the Cohens offered such support. Kaplan had been looking for space for Selvoski, and searched for grants, which was difficult because Mary's Closet is for profit. "I've used Mary as my primary costumer since the company started back in 2002," Kaplan said.

"She thrives on chaos," LePine, said of his mother. She loves to have a lot of people around and she loves to sew, "so we're keeping her sewing ... The thing my mother has a hard time with is charging what she's worth," LePine said in July.

Selvoski said they will be paying more rent than she had been, but less than anywhere else would cost. Mary's Closet won't be able to be as generous with discounts, but "the bottom line is we still want good theater," Selvoski said. LePine said they are contemplating a membership program — one group already has this arrangement — in which theater companies would pay a monthly fee. Members could pick out whatever they needed, to a point, after which would be charged extra. LePine thinks the program could help keep the costumes affordable for everyone. "If we can cover rent, we don't need to charge much," LePine said.

Selvoski understands that many companies don't have much money. High rental fees were why she started her own inventory in the first place. Now, though, she wants to build awareness with theater companies that costuming needs to be built into show budgets with the other production fees from the start. Companies frequently worry about it too late.

LePine also wrote in an e-mail, "I'm trying very hard to launch this as a viable enterprise to make sure it remains available to our communities and their children." (Contact LePine at 566-5790 or je-lepine@comcast.net.)

LePine said that there could be a new vision for this building. Actor Kevin Roberge and cohorts have a set building space there, LePine said. Gamache and Kaplan are looking at attracting audio visual and lighting companies, LePine said. The next logical step is to use some space for a venue, Kaplan said. (Yellow Taxi Productions and Phoenix Academy both put small performance spaces in Nashua mills.)

For all of the drama, Johonnett said they "tried not to spend too much time thinking about the negative." With no prospects in sight, Selvoski had told her concerned fellow church members "The good Lord will provide."


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