This tribute was written to honor Amanda Aldridge on the occasion of her retirement.
Our Southwest Virginia region is blessed with many gifts, not the least of which are the many talented artists who live and work here. And ever since the bundle of creative energy that is Amanda Aldridge landed in its midst, Barter Theatre patrons here at home and from all over the globe have been the delighted beneficiaries of her abundant artistic talents.
For the past 27 years Aldridge served as resident choreographer and costume designer for our State Theatre of Virginia, filling its stage with exciting, graceful movement as well as glorious color and texture. It is highly unusual for one person to serve dual roles in the demanding task of mounting a professional theatre production, for fear of diluted efforts. But Aldridge’s incredible intelligence, keen artistic eye and boundless ingenuity enabled her to multiply, rather than divide, the richness of her creative results.
The story of Aldridge’s artistic journey that eventually led to her unique career at Barter Theatre illustrates that the path to discovering passions is often a circuitous and unexpected one.
Aldridge grew up dancing, loving it since her first dance class at age 3. Even amid numerous family relocations for her father’s work, dance school was a constant in her life. As she indulged in her love of performing dance, a love of creating dance also emerged.
“Always, when I listened to music and closed my eyes, I saw the movement,” she says. It’s no surprise that she began choreographing very early, beginning at age 13 with a production of “The Fairy Doll” ballet in the fellowship hall of her father’s church.
During high school in Princeton, New Jersey, she danced in a regional ballet company. But an opportunity to dance in a production of “The Music Man” changed her path. Aldridge recalls the experience: “I thought ‘this is the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s a lot more fun than ballet!’” Having the world of musical theater opened up to her helped lead her in a new direction.
After graduation from Sarah Lawrence College, she moved to New York City to pursue a career as a professional dancer. Landing a fortuitous gig at Canterbury Theatre in Indiana led to a slight alteration of her focus. “I was hired as a dancer, and then I started choreographing there, and at that point I really started enjoying that aspect of it more than performing,” she says.
Aldridge’s can-do attitude served her well in discovering more new loves. Skilled at sewing, she also worked in the costume shop at Canterbury. When the artistic director asked her to design costumes for “Picnic,” a show that a young director named Richard Rose was directing, she accepted the challenge. “I told him, ‘Okay, that would be fun.’ And I had a blast doing it!” Aldridge recalls.
She and Rose became a couple and moved to New York where Aldridge segued into costume design. Working at Julliard in the costume shop lent her the opportunity to begin assisting professional costume designers. She also took classes at the Fashion Institute but learning from established designers was a great way to start breaking into that realm of the business.
When she came to Barter in 1992, Aldridge began to combine both her loves to help create its spectacular theatrical offerings. Ashley Campos, Barter resident actor, fellow choreographer and costume designer who has worked closely with Aldridge since 2006, says, “Amanda’s choreography is exciting and ambitious, always seeking the unexpected. That same eye for detail that elevates her costumes also insists upon precision and consistency from her dancers to create the final, stunning product that you get to experience.”
The sheer volume of Aldridge’s body of work at Barter is staggering, as Campos illustrates by providing some numbers. “Amanda has designed costumes for 187 shows, ranging anywhere from one look for one actor, to nearly 200 costumes for 20 plus actors. “Singin’ in the Rain” had 1,517 individual items. She also choreographed 66 productions. A typical musical gets about 120 rehearsal hours, with roughly 70 hours going towards dance. That adds up to approximately 4,752 hours in just dance rehearsal, not including prep time.”
But Aldridge finds the combination of two demanding jobs fascinating. “It’s interesting, because when I see one, I see the other. They go hand in hand, they’re not separate to me. When I’m working on one, the other one comes into play.”
Along with the fascination come challenges, especially the time constraints. Rehearsals follow immediately on the heels of fittings, and long hours choreographing take time away from work in the shop. “Needing to be in two places at once kind of tugs you a bit,” says Aldridge. “But one of the great things about working at Barter is that we don’t have that tug so much.” Barter theatre artists are resident, which keeps their work unfettered by a constant search for the next gig.
“We might be focusing on five shows, but they are all here – all under the same umbrella with the same people - which is really a pleasure to do.”
Another challenge is communication. “There is nothing isolated about what we do,” says Aldridge. “Even when I’m alone in the rehearsal hall choreographing, it relates to all the different aspects.” That’s why she’s thankful for the collaborative spirit at Barter. “The fact that we all know each other and can call on each other or brainstorm makes the challenge fun – instead of frightening.”
Aldridge’s creations are inspired by many sources. The director’s concept fuels her imagination and grounds her in the story. But she also adds, “Music inspires me a lot. Fabrics and color inspire me.”
Her process for getting ideas from her head onto the stage is well thought out and organized. She described her system for plotting the big ballet number from “Singin’ in the Rain.” “Before I designed the costume colors I figured out where I wanted the all dancers to be, so that I could balance the colors. On a chart all the colors are there, the tops and bottoms, in a ray, and I have one for each section of that musical piece. I love playing with color like that.”
When told that most people would not expect an artist’s approach to be so structured, Aldridge says it’s second nature. “I was always very organized growing up. I’m very orderly and like to organize a process for everything. And so, it’s funny, I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of myself as an artist, but I love that idea.”
As hard working and creative as she is, Aldridge also graciously embraces her fellow collaborators with enthusiastic praise. “Amanda’s generosity of spirit allows her to celebrate and elevate the people around her,” says Campos. “She has the innate ability to recognize potential in people, and then give them the opportunity and space to explore it.” This gift is most likely one of the secrets of Aldridge’s success.
Aldridge is quick to give credit to the collaborators who contribute to getting her designs onstage, the numerous people who do all of the patterning, the construction, the wigs and the crafts. But she has been the power driving the costume shop’s incredible growth from its humble beginnings as a staff of three, which included Aldridge herself serving as manager, designer, shopper, stitcher and doer of just about any other task necessary.
Choosing a favorite show from her work proved difficult, but Aldridge says a few stand out as particularly memorable. “’Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ was the first time I figured out how to do an abstract design. It was very exciting to feel like I’d turned a corner.” Other shows in which she employed totally unique ideas include “Chicago,” “Les Miserables” and “Cabaret.”
Aldridge considers her career at Barter Theatre a true blessing. The wonderful performers, collaborators and especially the chance to create art with her husband of 37 years made her time there a joy. “All of the people who work at Barter are family, and great, interesting people. It’s an honor to work with all of them.” She adds that living in Abingdon escalates the joy. “The people here make it such a pleasure. I wouldn’t trade it for anything – this theater, in this location.”
A true artist makes their work look easy. Onlookers blissfully unaware of the toil and sweat simply enjoy its beauty. A true artist is a giving soul. Their intense labors of love produce bountiful feasts for the eyes and leave a magnificent legacy of treasures in their wake. Amanda Aldridge is a true artist.
Bonny Gable is a former theaterprofessor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia. She is a member of the A! Magazine for the Arts committee. https://www.linkedin.com/in/bonny-gable-4a4767a1/