After 30 years, Pulse director knows costumes help cast spell

Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok, founder and managing director of the Pulse Opera House in Warren, is surrounded by just a fraction of the costumes the Pulse has amassed during its 30-year history. Smyth-Wartzok also serves as costume designer for the Pulse and, for most of those 30 years, single-handedly designed and constructed all of the actors’ costumes.
Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok, founder and managing director of the Pulse Opera House in Warren, is surrounded by just a fraction of the costumes the Pulse has amassed during its 30-year history. Smyth-Wartzok also serves as costume designer for the Pulse and, for most of those 30 years, single-handedly designed and constructed all of the actors’ costumes. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published March 3, 2016.

The actors get all the glory.

But their costumes have just as much to do with casting the spell of the story.

“What that person decided to put on that day tells you a lot about who that character is,” says Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok, costume designer at the Pulse Opera House, in Warren.

The thousands of costumes that have appeared on stage at the Pulse over its 30-year history are largely the work of Smyth-Wartzok, the community theater’s founder, who also serves as its managing director and artistic director.

She’s designed each of the costumes and, with the help of volunteers, sewed the outfits to fit each actor.

For a while, one of her volunteers was Tony Sirk, who made his entrance at the Pulse as an actor in “Some Enchanted Evening” in 1996. His last show there was in 2003.

“When I learned how to sew, I helped her a little bit,” Sirk says.

While the Pulse is known for launching the careers of a number of professional performers, Sirk has taken his theatrical experience in a different direction.

He uses his sewing skills at the professional level, working in costuming for college and professional theater companies since 2004. He’s now a costumer and teacher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

Smyth-Wartzok started out in the same area, working as a costumer for Fort Wayne Ballet and assistant costumer for the Fort Wayne Civic Theater early in her career.

“I’ve always loved design,” she says. “I kind of learned (how to sew) from my grandmother.”

Now, in the midst of the first show of the Pulse’s 30th anniversary season, Smyth-Wartzok says she’s created “easily a thousand” costumes for the 126 shows she’s staged over those 30 years.

Each show, and each costume, has had its own requirements.

“The Orphan Train,” which opened on Feb. 26, tells the story of orphans who were transported by train from New York to, hopefully, new homes in the Midwest. The story is set in 1914, but the costumes vary in style.

Some of the children came from orphanages and wore nicer, but institutional looking, clothing. Others were living on the streets; their clothing was dirty and ragged.

Adult clothing differed, too. Society ladies wore the most recent attire of the time; the clothing of farm women was more utilitarian.

For this and for other productions, there are also practical considerations. A Victorian play calls for Victorian clothing, which requires a tightly laced corset for a proper line. But the actors have to be able to breathe, to move, to dance, to sing; historical accuracy, and the corset, gives way to practicality.

The Pulse actors themselves may not be accustomed to the stage and that, too, requires some concessions — sleeves, for example, for an actor not comfortable baring her arms.

Then there’s budget. There’s not an unlimited amount of money.

And that, Sirk says, is one of the reasons he’s now working in costuming.

“I just kind of fell into what I’m doing now,” says Sirk.

Sirk connected with the Pulse while he was still a student at Huntington North High School. He had spent some time on stage with the former Huntington Theatre Guild and the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre before joining the Pulse.

“It was a pain for my dad to have to drive me to Fort Wayne all the time,” he says.

The people at the Pulse were among those who pushed him to go farther.

“After graduation, I lived in Markle for a while, just really doing nothing with my life,” Sirk says. “Cynthia and Ron gave me a lot of confidence. They pushed me to go to school.”

He spent a year at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, then transferred to Ball State University, in Muncie, to study musical theater, staying involved with the Pulse while in college

He got quite a bit of stage time at Ball State — aided by the fact that the females studying theater far outnumbered the males — and enjoyed it.

“I was pretty successful at Ball State as a performer,” he says.

He also learned how to sew. Classes in sewing and shop were mandatory for musical theater majors.

And he started designing costumes at Ball State.

“The only way we could have costumes (at Ball State) was if we found them or made them,” he says. “When I graduated, the lady retired and they gave me the job.”

The job was assistant costume shop manager, a position he held from 2004 to 2006. He’s since worked in costume shops for West Virginia Public Theater, Maine State Music Theater, Anderson University, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, University of West Florida, Brevard Music Center in North Carolina and, until moving to Pittsburgh late last year, at Western Carolina University. He’s spent the past few summers with Creede Repertory Theatre in Colorado.

“For the last four years, I worked for Terrence Mann,” Sirk says. “He was the original Javier on Broadway, in ‘Les Miz,’ and he was the original ‘Beast’ in Beauty and the Beast.’ He teaches at the university I worked for.”

Sirk says he has no regrets about moving from the stage to the costume shop, although he says acting is “still something I’d like to do.”

Costuming offers more dependable employment than acting, he notes.

“I was getting paid well, and a lot of my friends weren’t finding any work,” he says. Besides, he adds, he had an opportunity to teach.

But even costuming hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn. Costume shops with a staff of 25 were cut to five people, he says, although things are now looking up.

“I’ve been blessed to have been working through the whole thing,” he says. “In 12 years, I’ve only supported myself with theater.”

At the Creede in Colorado, he says, he’s taken care of costuming from design to construction; this summer, he’ll be handling just the design. He’s also going to be doing a podcast for the theater this summer, which he says is “kind of like being on stage.”

Sirk recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA, from North Carolina, where he’d been living and working the past five years. He now plies his craft at Carnegie Mellon University, where he just finished designing an opera, “Calista,” that opens in April.

“The show we’re doing now is set in the 17th century, but we’re doing it kind of punk instead,” he says.