By May S. Ruiz
The middle school musical was ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ As the students were getting ready for rehearsals, Micol Issa, 6th grade English and Drama teacher at Charles W. Eliot Arts Magnet Academy (Eliot) in Altadena, who was also directing the production, had a sudden inspiration, “Instead of shopping for costumes for the show, why don’t we make them ourselves?”
Never mind that it was January and the production was slated for May. Indeed, many would have found that prospect daunting. Where would they find designers? Who, besides Issa, even knew how to sew?
But Eliot was the top Arts School in the Pasadena area and it had a reputation to uphold. So everyone got behind her idea quickly. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators sprang to action to make Issa’s brainstorm a reality.
Issa’s ambitious concept would not have been do-able had it not been for a grant that transformed the school to what it is today. Lori Touloumian, Eliot principal, informs, “In 2013, this school, then known as Eliot Middle School, was one of four academic institutions awarded the magnet schools assistance program grants of $7.9 million each to have its own integrated theme. Eliot, in particular, was designated as a Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) school.
“To ensure cohesion of the district’s schools and initiatives, there is one person who has oversight over all the magnet programs. We’re fortunate to have Shannon Mumolo in this capacity. As the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) Program Director for the Pasadena Unified School District, she oversees the budget and implementation of magnet programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education. She has been an MSAP Project Director since 2015 and previously served as the MSAP Site Coordinator for Eliot Arts Magnet.”
“Through the grant, our teachers went through specialized training on how to integrate the experiential approach to art into the core classes of English, history, math, and science,” discloses Touloumian. “We have resident artists who work with teachers on site during the school day and after school who work directly with students on various projects. We’ve also partnered with the Huntington Library to offer free after-school programs every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.
“While adhering to the district’s established curriculum for the scope and sequence of the arts program, the teachers have been empowered to make decisions in terms of what art project they will do in their core class and they are free to set up the time with the resident artists. The school follows the common core standards and the artists in residence come in with expertise in the arts standards to weave the two together.”
Touloumian says further, “Additionally, we were to able create art-maker spaces on campus – we revamped our dance rooms with more equipment, we transformed a former parent room into an art gallery which is now utilized as a community center where our students and community artists can hang their art, and we added a ceramics room and a media lab on campus.
“We are now a fully integrated arts academy. Students can choose what elective classes they want to be in but even if they choose not to attend a specific elective class they may still have the visual arts experience in their English, history, math, or science class, or after school.”
Cheili Lopez, a 7th grade student who participates in the arts classes and after-school program, says “I’ve just started the printing shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays with Mr. Duffy, and on Fridays I go to the costume shop. Through the arts classes, I’ve been able to make things for my family – I sewed an apron for my mom and I made a jug in ceramics class which I gave to my parents for Christmas. They were very happy because the items weren’t store-bought; I made them myself.”
“Everything we do here is connected to the Arts,” Issa explains. “We’re trying to rebuild the school culture and create spaces for kids to have multiple avenues of access to the Arts. Not everyone wants to act, but this is another way for kids to participate in the making of performances, and Cheili is an example of that.
We realized that something we needed, not just for the drama and choir program but also for dance classes, was a costume shop. That was the goal we tried to work towards last year, which launched us into this next level. Now, we have six sewing machines, two sergers, and an embroidery machine. We basically have a sewing club that meets every Friday after school.”
“In the past, we assigned people to find the costumes for specific characters,” details Issa. “But, like I said, we need costumes for all our productions so I took the idea of having a costume shop to Denise, the artist in residence. She, in turn, went to Lori and said ‘If you will okay the costume shop, I’ll write the grant,’ and she did.
“Of course, I had to justify why I thought a costume shop was necessary. I argued that it’s something that would be great for the program as a whole and we had the expertise on how to run a costume shop on campus. Denise and I know how to sew, then we discovered that so many parents also have that skill. So what it really did was brought more people on campus.
“Through Facebook, people shared with everyone our donation list and what I was hoping to accomplish. People donated patterns and dropped off whatever they could contribute. Everyone was happy to give and appreciated that we were teaching kids how to sew.”
A visit to a museum was the inspiration for their musical’s look. Issa recounts, “I went to an exhibition of Marc Chagall costumes at LACMA and I was astonished because it was exactly what I envisioned for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ So I took the kids on a field trip to see the show and when we came back we started designing.
“We found real pictures of the Chagall costumes. And under the guidance of our artist in residence, we taught the kids how to draw and make patterns, to paint them with colors, and to sew inside out.
“Because of the large number of costumes that needed to be finished, it was a community effort. Students, teachers, and parents spent a lot of late nights and weekends sewing. And, while not each costume was made entirely by kids, they worked on every one.”
Lopez was one of the students who made the costumes and she acquiesces, “Each costume was a group effort. Several students worked with an adult to work on one and when we didn’t finish that day, we went back to it the following afternoon.”
The experience proved to be constructive for Lopez not only because she learned how to sew. She says, “We do a lot of projects in regular school so doing the after-school costume shop helps me collaborate with other students.”
Issa points out, “What they do in the costume shop translates, however indirectly, with their core classes. They go through the same procedure of calculating, of figuring out a problem, much like in math class. They have to assess how thick they need to make the paint to have the effect that they want. So they experiment with a lot of color samples to figure out what consistency to use so it doesn’t just turn into watercolor but, at the same time, doesn’t make the fabric super stiff. That’s a process that applies in science class.”
“The show ran for three days and all the costumes held up,” Issa says with pride. “There were minor repairs which we made between shows. The incredible thing about this, also, is that it gave me additional crew on top of the stage team. From now on, the costume crew is in charge of queueing the costumes – making sure they’re in the right place – and noting what needs to be repaired so we can make them the next day.
Eliot’s spring musical proved to be a smashing success. Raves Issa, “Our ticket sales for the show was tremendous. We sold over $1,000, which was more than what our previous shows generated. Then, on October 10, we held our first official gallery opening featuring the costumes from last school year’s spring musical ‘Alice in Wonderland Jr.’ We invited the District and Community Arts Team, and all our Altadena, Pasadena, and Sierra Madre partners – from dance to theater companies – and they all came to see the exhibit.”
The display, which goes on until December, highlights a very specific artistic vision. Issa describes, “The costumes in Eliot’s production of Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ are unlike any other version of the show you have seen because it was inspired by the artist Marc Chagall and the Bauhaus design movement.
“Chagall, well known for his paintings and stained glass windows, also designed costumes for the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet. You will see some of his designs and paintings represented in our own costumes and sketches. As we researched and sketched our vision for Wonderland into life, we decided to add in the modern and otherworldly influence of the Bauhaus design movement. Categorized by basic shapes, lines, and spirals, we fused the modernist style of the Bauhaus movement with the loose painting styles of Chagall.”
“We’ve had previous exhibits but they were open after school mainly for parents and students,” clarifies Issa. “This was our first gallery opening held on a specific night for the entire community, complete with a bake and beverage sale. It demonstrates the amazing work that can be done when students, teachers, parents, and community partners collaborate. We’ll be forever grateful for the generosity of the Pasadena Showcase for the Arts and the Pasadena Educational Foundation for their support in making Eliot a premier arts school in the area.
“It was truly a project that involved a great many students – 140 kids took part in our costume shop, out of our total student population of 545. That’s 23% of the student body. What’s more, this endeavor inspired others so we have doubled our numbers in the costume shop. Even those students who weren’t able to participate in the after-school program worked around their schedule to be in the costume shop.
“We started the Friday costume shop early this school year so we could teach the kids sooner and, in time, they would be able to sew the bulk of the costumes themselves. Our next musical is ‘Hairspray’ and we’re creating the costumes again. But because this show happens in our world, we’ll probably use some of the basic costumes we already have, instead of making them from scratch. That’s the cool thing about having a costume shop – it has given us the ability to use something that already exists by altering it to fit our needs.”
Issa is now just entering her third year at Eliot but, already, she has been instrumental in giving it the distinction of being the only middle school with a costume shop. But, more importantly, she has successfully incorporated in its program an invaluable skill that would serve middle school students long after they leave Eliot. Nay, for life.