It’s Volunteer Appreciation Week! This is a time to recognize those volunteers who keep the non-profit organizations, churches and civic groups humming across the nation every day. At VCNB we encourage our employees to embrace volunteer projects that they think are important or that they find engaging. While we have a lot of great volunteers in our ranks, there’s one in particular who goes far above and beyond, giving hundreds of hours each year to a project she considers a true labor of love.
Longtime Friendly Bremen Banking Center employee Dee Conrad has spent more than ten years volunteering with the Lancaster High School Drama Department, starting when her middle son became involved with the productions. Her official title is Costume Mistress for major productions at LHS but when she describes her work, she clearly does much, much more than the job title suggests.
The Drama Department puts on two major shows every year: a fall play and a spring musical. Each production requires countless hours of research, searching through the costume storage, Goodwill, Salvation Army, eBay or people’s attics and basements to then manipulate or alter a costume piece or sew something from scratch to make each costume just right for the role and the time period. Dee explained, “We are responsible for every little thing each person needs from the top of their head to the bottom of their feet. That may mean a hat, eyeglasses, jewelry and, of course, the correct shoes in addition to the clothes they wear.”
But first she works with the Director on the production they will do and is involved in the audition process where a committee gives their input to the Director who ultimately decides who gets the roles in the play that may involve anywhere from twenty-five to fifty young people. Each cast member could require as many as five to ten costumes per show. Sometimes the shows are double-cast which allows the less seasoned actors to have a major role for the Thursday night show and also act as understudy for the more senior actors who perform on Friday and Saturday nights. Because these two actors may not be of the same height and build, two separate sets of costumes may be needed.
Once the cast is set, then the real work begins. Along with the help of another long-time volunteer who is the Art/Prop Mistress, each student is measured and their pictures taken. If the show takes place in a time period within the last 100 years, many of the current clothes in stock can be manipulated to fit. If the show is a “fanciful” show like last year’s “Shrek, The Musical” or this year’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot”, Dee takes as many modern pieces as possible and transforms them into period costumes. “For ‘Xanadu’ a few years ago, I used a bridesmaid dress and turned it into the costume of a Greek Goddess. Sometimes it isn’t the actual clothing but the logistics of a show that make it difficult. In “Drowsy Chaperone’, my leading lady had to appear to change into seven different outfits while singing and dancing, all in one musical number. There were many hours of thought and discussion with the Director and Choreographer about how she could accomplish this feat. I was able to finagle and maneuver each piece of clothing just right for her to get this done,” she said.
Sometimes Dee even sews a costume from scratch, often without a pattern but perhaps working from a picture. She cited one example where a small girl needed a “Madeleine” costume. Working off pictures of this famous literary character, Dee was able to create the collared dress, cape and hat.
Along with research on the right look for a period costume, she may need to learn about period accessories, how to distress a specific type of fabric to make a costume look old or dirty or how to clean and style a wig. Then there is the endless fitting, fixing and adjusting to make each costume look and stay correct. “I assist the actors with their hair and stage make-up, plus I try to look at the actors before they go on stage. Some of the changes the actors must do are so quick that another set of eyes to make sure a collar is down, a shirt is tucked in, a hat is on straight, etc., help to make the production go smoothly.”
The list of responsibilities and the work required for each production seems to be a mile long but Dee takes it all in stride when she says, “It does require a lot of creativity, thought, planning and work. But it always gets done somehow and the results are always spectacular! Our philosophy is that we don’t put on what people might think of as ‘high school’ productions. We do professional work that anyone would pay to see. We strive for excellence in everything we do, from the acting and dancing, to the sets, costumes, lighting and sound quality. Each of our young performers work extremely hard and put in hundreds of hours of their time to memorize their script, learn their blocking, sometimes learn a different accent, perfect their dance moves, etc. I applaud each one!”
Being Costume Mistress is clearly a labor of love for Dee but her efforts don’t stop with clothing and accessorizing the drama students. “I love these kids! I love working with them, seeing them grow from nervous Freshman to confident Seniors! We are family! I do try to be a positive adult role model for them. I try to encourage, teach, laugh and cry with them. I really enjoy seeing them grow and move on to whatever college or career choice they make,” she explained.
She mentioned that this family is looking for a new member as the Drama Department is seeking someone to build sets for future productions. The gentleman who has built spectacular sets for the group for many years is retiring from that position, providing an opportunity for someone else to become involved in the group.
Dee, who was a Theater major at the University of Hawaii, said that she has always loved the theater. She was also good in math at school, so when she needed a job when she moved to Lancaster, she landed a position in banking and has never left. Starting as a bank teller about 38 years ago, she has been with our VCNB family for nearly 18. Dee works as a Retail Banker in our office at W. Fair Ave. in Lancaster. “God puts you where He wants you. I’m a firm believer in that and I believe that I’m here for a reason,” she explained.
She credits her husband Steve for supporting her involvement with Drama all these years. He is also involved with LHS as Asst. Varsity Soccer coach as well as the official photographer for the drama productions. She said, “I’m very grateful to my husband for putting up with so much! A lot of things don’t get done at home when I am in the thick of a show. This time we had a stuffed cow on the dining room table for a few weeks and sequins tracked all over the house. The other day I apologized for all this and he said ‘I just love watching you do the things you love’. And I really appreciate him for that!”
The couple have three sons: Dan and John who both live in Austin, TX and Mike (along with his wife, Mayela) who is stationed with the Air Force in Tucson, AZ. Mike and Mayela are still involved in Community Theater there in AZ. Dee is also a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Lancaster as a Sunday School teacher and in the church choir.
“I really do love working with the kids! They’re a lot of fun and keep me younger!”
We thank Dee for being such a spectacular influence on young people at Lancaster High School and congratulate her for finding a passion that she so clearly loves. We believe the drama students at LHS are very lucky to have her. Great job Dee!