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Dressing the Circus

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Costume designer Austin Sanderson

Austin Sanderson is an Alabama transplant who works in the New York City area as a costume designer for theater and live performance productions. He's got a lovely lilt to his speech, a perfectly curled handlebar mustache and a twinkle in his eye. In the three seasons that he's designed costumes for Big Apple Circus aerialists, jugglers and clowns, Sanderson has learned that the details of performer's costumes can be pivotal to the success or failure of an act. PBS CIRCUS talked with Sanderson about his experiences dreaming up, designing and repairing the costumes that give these circus performers flair.

PBS CIRCUS: As a costume designer for the Big Apple Circus, what do you do?

Sanderson: I'm a freelance costume designer based in New York, and I do work for regional theater. I've done three seasons with the [Big Apple Circus]. My job is to design costumes for the performers, to see them through the building process [as the show is crafted in Walden, New York] and through opening night. The wardrobe staff will handle any problems that happen on the road, but I'll step in if something happens with the construction of a costume.

PBS CIRCUS: What's the biggest challenge you face in your position?

Sanderson: The perfomers' lives depend on what they're doing, and their tricks are so dangerous and take such skill. [As a costume designer], you have to listen to them because their whole career is on the line. They have to see their feet. The material has to stretch. These minor details are so important, and that is how [designing] differs from working with other [types] of performers. These circus performers have very technical needs. Most of the circus people can sew, and a lot of them make their own costumes or they have them custom-made in Europe. [Circus performers] understand their wardrobes, and as long as you listen to them about what they need, technically, they're pretty open to how things look visually. I'm not told, 'I don't like that color.' It's more about the physicality of the costume. 'Can I have a straight leg so I can see my feet?' In many circuses, [performers] have to provide their own costumes, so they show up and they're thrilled that they have a costume designer.

PBS CIRCUS: What surprised you most about the circus community?

Sanderson: I was surprised by how incredibly close-knit and family oriented the [circus community] is. It's an international community, and they are very respectful of each other and their talents. I mean, these people are living together for a year. They take care of each other's children. It's like an extended family. It's a very tough life and they're very dedicated.

PBS CIRCUS: What challenges did you face during the Big Apple Circus Play On! season, and how did you deal with any hiccups?

Sanderson: During the Play On! season, I think we had some cast changes that happened after [the circus] opened. We had a whole new flying team, and I got calls about the ringmistress's white costume. It was hard to keep clean, so we built a couple of pants over the course of the season. [The white pants] looked great; it was really striking, but white is a tricky color in a dirt ring. I think of all the gigs I've ever done, the Big Apple Circus is my favorite. It's like I'm learning things again after 20 years of doing this work. [The circus] is a different animal. It worked out for me because I was able to listen to the performers and Mr. Binder, but it reminds you that you don't know everything.

The Costume Shop

Austin Sanderson oversees the design and creation of costumes for the new season.