The costume lady
Pat Burden discusses her life in theatre
Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014 06:00 am
Q. If you were shipwrecked on an island with plenty of food and water, what two items would you want to take with you?
A. An axe and scissors.
Q. If you won a $50 million lottery, what would you do with the money?
A. Buy my daughter and son-in-law a house and build a community facility to house all kinds of costumes and props for all of Edmonton. It would function like a library.
Q. If you could have dinner with any famous woman in history, who would it be?
A. Joan of Arc. She was one of the first women who truly stood for what she believed in and she had a huge amount of personal energy.
Q. If you could have dinner with one man in history, who would it be and where would you take him?
A. Winston Churchill for a picnic in the park. I’d like to take him out, not as a prime minister, but as a real person.
Q. What is your favourite meal?
A. Steak – filet mignon.
Q. How do you spend time relaxing?
A. I love gardens and reading and I love being outdoors hiking and camping. I used to cross-country ski until 1991.
Q. If money were no object, where would you travel?
A. Scotland, New Zealand and I’d like to take one of those road trips to Antarctica.
Q. What TV personality best describes you?
A. Rosie O’Donnell. I think she’s brash, but there’s a soft side. She likes some of the same things I do. She likes children and is a big supporter of equal rights.
Q. You work with colour every day. What is your favourite colour?
A. Turquoise or teal. To me it’s a colour that denotes freedom. In pale shades it’s like the sky. In deeper colours, it’s like the ocean.
How many 69-year-old women can walk into a room and ask 25-year-old men to take their clothes off?
Pat Burden holds that power. No she’s not a doctor. Burden is a costume designer and wardrobe mistress at Mayfield Dinner Theatre, a position she’s held since 1988.
A favourite among staff and Edmonton’s stellar theatre community, she is gentle, articulate and delivers some wickedly funny one-liners.
Burden lived in St. Albert for close to 15 years raising three children before life changes and high taxes prompted her to move to north Edmonton.
But through the ups and downs, the extraordinary variety of productions at Mayfield have provided an outlet for her creative problem-solving skills, and allowed her to work with a stunning assortment of North American actors – almost too many to remember.
Burden is getting ready to pass the torch to a new generation. But her love of the craft is evident.
“You get to see the end product. Lots of things take energy, but you don’t always see the end product. I get a lot of satisfaction and I like the creative challenge. And I get to work with younger people. They give you energy and make you feel you have to keep up. At the end of the day you’ve done as good a job or better than other people,” Burden said.
An Edmonton girl to the core, Burden graduated from Bonnie Doon High School.
“When I was 18, I wanted to do theatre desperately. My father said ‘no daughter of mine is going to be a gypsy. You’re going into education.’ It was 1962 and at that time if your father wanted you to do something, you said ‘how long?’” Burden said.
Ironically, her father had performed in musical theatre as a young man and her grandmother was a Chautauqua Girl, a 1920s agent for a troupe of travelling players.
Like the two generations before her, the theatre bug had infected Burden. By age 14 she volunteered to make costumes for Torches, a summer theatre program at the University of Alberta.
She received additional experience through Edmonton’s Parks and Recreation Theatre for Young Audiences, a program later kyboshed during a round of budget cuts.
Burden’s reputation grew steadily. When Ice Capades came to Edmonton short one wardrobe assistant, Theatre for Young Audiences referred her for a job. But the family patriarch nixed the idea.
“I always wondered what would have happened if I went.”
However, Burden’s foray into early childhood education turned out to be a bonus for St. Albert. By 1964, Burden was teaching nursery school locally at the legion.
But the transportation system was terrible. At that time, the only bus service from Edmonton was through Blue Bird Bus Lines offered twice daily departing from the main depot. The job was short-lived.
Burden only moved to St. Albert in 1980 after a short stint in Bon Accord. Burden’s second husband was an avid outdoorsman and the couple built a log house in the village for their three children under 12.
“There wasn’t very much for them to do and it was like a prison for them. We had to drive them everywhere.”
After two years the log house was put up for sale. The couple had spent $8,000 on gas, a factor that weighed heavily in moving to a larger centre.
In our burg, Burden ran an after-school program at Neil M. Ross and at Keenooshayo Elementary as well as teaching kindergarten at St. Albert Daycare.
When her children joined St. Albert Children’s Theatre, Burden volunteered her sewing skills for eight years.
“It was lots of fun. I love the idea of children doing theatre for children. It’s such a positive thing.”
By the end of 1988, daughter Elizabeth Allison was involved with MacEwan’s musical theatre program. The college mounted Candide at the Edmonton Fringe.
It was a defining moment in that Ron Ulrich, artistic director at Mayfield’s Stage West, spotted Burden’s designs and invited her to work for him.
Although eager to strut her stuff, Burden’s first day was a harsh introduction to the reality of full-time back stage life.
“The first day the production manager gave me a cast list of the first show and a list for the next show. The first one started in four weeks and I went, ‘OK. Death by fire.’”
In addition, the first workshop was a warehouse on 166 and 109 Ave. Originally it was a garage transformed into a carpentry shop and wardrobe centre.
“The dust coated everything beautifully. You couldn’t lay anything down for any length of time.”
Once costumes were completed, she would start working on the next show’s wardrobe during the day while assisting actors with costume changes at night during the run of any given production.
Designer Leona Brausen, who works with Burden, notes that the stage veteran does the job of two people, possibly three.
“She can dole it out and she can take. She’s not a lightweight,” Brausen said.
Despite the horrendous hours and the occasional temperamental thespian, Burden has survived and thrived providing the actors with a visual representation of their characters.
Of the Mayfield’s wide repertoire that ranged from comedy and mystery to cabaret and musical theatre, Burden was most enamoured with the mid-nineties version of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Alfie Zappacosta.
“It was among the best of experiences for everyone. If you’re Christian, the whole story becomes very real. There was a real cohesiveness and general good feeling. I really loved Jesus Christ Superstar.”
One production that did not fare well was Squabbles, originally cast with Vic Tayback, a popular American television actor. However, he bowed out after receiving a movie offer and comedian Jack Carter was the replacement.
“By the time they get here, stars are usually at the end of their career. Some are older and set in their ways as well as feeling they have to be treated specially. Jack Carter had a problem. He had expectations of the wardrobe department that wardrobe doesn’t provide.”
Perhaps the heaviest show Burden was immersed in was Hairspray, a mega-production requiring 200 costumes and 45 wigs – all completed in three weeks.
At some point in her career, Burden was associated with every theatrical troupe in Edmonton. In 2006, she received a Sterling Award for long service in theatre.
“It wasn’t for one show, but all the shows I’ve been involved in. I’m not a knock-your-socks-off designer. I’m a very practical, useful one. And the award was very special for me.”
Burden is extremely humble in describing her role in the theatre scene. Her creativity and commitment across the decades to both professional and amateur companies has inspired many and marked her as a one-of-a-kind artist to honour today and tomorrow.