Where: Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria
When: Opens tonight, continues to March 21
Tickets: $14 to $24; 250-721-8000
Born into a working-class Dublin family, Pauline Stynes had to leave school at age 15 following her father’s death. She became a tailor’s apprentice.
Now, after a lifetime of sewing, she’s close to achieving a childhood dream. Stynes, who has seen her 50th birthday come and go, is poised to become a professional costume designer for theatre.
Her mentor and enthusiastic booster is one of Canada’s most admired theatre designers, Mary Kerr.
“I think she’s going to be exceptional,” said Kerr, who is one of Stynes’s theatre professors at the University of Victoria.
“She’s got the ability, the heart and the drive. I think the age is immaterial.”
Stynes is costume designer for the UVic theatre department’s production of Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus, opening tonight at the Phoenix Theatre. It’s her second assignment as a chief costume designer. Last year she did UVic’s production of Picnic, winning a Spotlight Critics’ Choice award for her colourful 1950s outfits.
This week, Stynes showed off costumes for Amadeus at the theatre department’s wardrobe shop. There was Mozart’s aristocratic garb: a rich blue velvet jacket over an elaborately brocaded vest. A plainer brown vest is for a courtier; there was also a peasant’s loose, tweedy overcoat.
Next year, Stynes will complete her theatre degree. Before registering for UVic, she had to upgrade her education at Vancouver Community College (where she completed the equivalent of high school) and Camosun College.
The mature student, who retains a strong Irish accent, was one of six children. Her father worked as a labourer, miner and dockyard worker. After his death, Stynes took a job as an apprentice for a Dublin tailor to help support the family.
“But I always longed to go to university,” she said. “I wanted an academic education. And it just wasn’t there for us growing up.”
As a young woman, she fantasized about studying at Dublin’s Grafton Academy of Fashion Design. When Stynes was a youngster, she sewed party dresses for her sisters based on pictures from magazines. She cut out patterns from old newspapers.
When Stynes turned 21, she and her siblings decided to immigrate to Canada. Living in Halifax, Vancouver and then Victoria, she worked the whole time sewing, sometimes for shops, sometimes from home.
It wasn’t easy for Stynes to gain admission to UVic. The theatre school naturally favours younger applicants. Stynes (who declined to give her exact age) is twice as old as the typical student.
She has a focus and work ethic that comes with maturity. Aside from being experienced at sewing, Kerr said, Stynes shows a flair for conceptual thinking — a must for any designer.
“I’m very excited for her,” Kerr said. “I think she’s going to have a good career.”
Stynes already has a few professional gigs under her belt. She helped build costumes for two Belfry shows: Equivocation and Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Stynes also created a replica of Marilyn Monroe’s famous Seven Year Itch dress for the 2013 première of Gavin Bryars’ Marilyn Forever. (The chamber opera was remounted last month at the Adelaide Festival in Australia.)
When Stynes started her degree, one obstacle was familiarizing herself with computers. Now she’s preparing to take a workshop on costume design using computers at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance, Design and Space.
Stynes aims to be a professional costume designer based in Victoria. By having worked hard and shown herself willing to take chances, she’s about to realize a lifelong dream.
“As I was getting older, I thought, I don’t mind making mistakes with my life. But I don’t want to have a regret,” she said.