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Rags become riches for this thrifty costume designer from JoCo

Theatrical even at a young age, Sarah Jeter walked the catwalk in her grandmother’s vintage dresses and formal wear. She signaled what she Jeter would become: a professional costume designer for plays and musicals.

Now 36, Jeter designs and creates costumes for performances at the Olathe Civic Theater Association and The Barn Players of Johnson County.

It’s like a child’s dream come true.

Vida Bikales, chairman of the Barn Players board, said he appreciated Jeter’s frugality.

“A community theater is on a shoestring budget,” Bikales said. “Clients need to be conscientious about their spending. Sarah creates the most beautiful show for little money.

In Jeter’s fantasy world of ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’, staged at the Olathe Civic Theater in 2021, a low budget was no obstacle. In one mystical scene, a pod of 16 mermaids rose from an imaginary ocean with sea shells clinging to their bodices. Each wore wet wigs made from hand-dyed rag heads in six colors of the rainbow.

“He was so creative and so adorable,” said Jo Bledsoe-Collins, president of the Olathe Civic Theater Association.

Clothing stores, thrift stores, hardware stores, and closets are among the go-to sites where Jeter collects recyclables. Old curtains are transformed into clothing. Sheets and pillowcases become priestly vestments.

Chip bags became headbands in a show and trash bags were made into T-shirts.

In Jeter’s hands, rags become riches, gems on stage.

The workshop space is a small, tidy room next to the kitchen for this designer.

“The sewing machine comes out of the closet,” Jeter said. “I have a drawing desk with drawers. Everything has its place.”

Classical music soothes while Jeter, who has another day job, works weekends and evenings. Sometimes the costumes fill a month-long period; sometimes two or three.

“My friends like to joke,” Jeter said. “They tell me that when I work on the drawings, I’m in prison for costumes.”

At that point, the script was studied, the characters identified, the actors measured, and the styles of an era brought to life in Jeter’s imagination. Renderings are drawn. A production schedule is inked onto a spreadsheet so designs are stitched on time.

Costumes make an impact, Bledsoe-Collins said.

“As an actor, you wear the costume. It changes you as you walk or sit. It changes the way you feel,” she said. “It puts you in the circumstances of the character. You become someone.

Jeter began his passion by earning a BA in Fine Arts from Northwest Missouri State University. Beyond design, performing on stage was a cornerstone of the curriculum. Since then Jeter has dressed the costumes for several productions for local and regional theatre, most notably the Olathe Civic Theater Association and The Barn Players.

When it’s showtime, Jeter rarely watches from the audience. Most likely, the drama takes place behind the scenes, as Jeter helps an actor make a quick costume change or behind-the-scenes adjustment.

“I’m also an artist,” Jeter said.

So it’s possible that a behind-the-scenes costume designer will appear on stage as a character, dressed in a design by Sarah Jeter.

For information on upcoming productions at a Johnson County Theater, go to olathetheatre.org or thebarnplayers.org.

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