Moving Picture: Elgin costume designer helps directors bring visions to life

As a stay-at-home mom raising four children, Fran Mitchell of Elgin never dreamed that someday she would end up as a costume designer.

Mitchell, who learned to sew from her mother, would often make clothing for her children, who are now grown.

It wasn't until her daughter decided to try out for a play for Children's Theatre of Elgin that she found herself on the costume committee.

She watched what the designers were doing and said to herself, "I can do that."

"So one thing led to another, and they asked me to be the costume designer," Mitchell said. "I have been doing most of their shows ever since. That was in 2001, and I have been doing it for 15 years."

  Although it can be hectic backstage, costume designer Fran Mitchell is an oasis of calm as helpers assist her in collecting costumes. Brian Hill/

With more than 70 shows under her belt, Mitchell said that she doesn't have a favorite, but a few come to mind, including "Aida." She also especially liked working on "Shrek," which she said was challenging.

"The actor was on his knees and had to dance," she said. "I love how those costumes turned out."

She is looking forward to working on "The Little Mermaid," which will run June 17-26 at Elgin Community College Arts Center.

Mitchell also handles the costumes for shows put on by the Fox Valley Theatre Company and at a number of local high schools, including Elgin Academy and Larkin High School and its Visual Performing Arts Academy.

Bartering sometimes helps her to stay within her allotted costume budget.

"I let (some local schools) use our costumes and they will let me use theirs," she said.

Before getting started on costumes for a show, Mitchell will spend time talking to the directors, to get a feel for what they want. She also does her own research, then heads to her favorite fabric store, along with stops at Goodwill and other resale shops, before beginning the process of making the costumes.

  If it doesn't fit or they don't have it, Mitchell will create entire costumes by hand. Brian Hill/

"We reuse the costumes again if we can," she said, but often they have to be made from scratch.

Mitchell said that each play offers its own set of complications and rewards.

"It makes you feel good when you see the show and you hear people in the audience saying, 'You know they made all those costumes.'" she said. "It's kind of a cool thing."

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