A Single Thread Runs through “Orlando” Actors’ Attire

Theater student creates costumes for play’s 18 characters as senior thesis project

With about 100 yards of material, access to 15 actors, extensive research, and a remarkable work ethic, one student has accomplished an amazing feat: creating all the costumes for Suffolk's production of Orlando, playing at the Modern Theater April 6-9. 

The play, based on a Virginia Woolf novel and produced by Suffolk’s Theatre Department in collaboration with the Lyric Stage Company, features 18 characters played by 15 student actors, travels through five centuries and several countries, and includes a gender change.

These changes necessitate many costume changes, and, while some attire will be built on stock clothing, 35 costumes must be built from scratch. Enter Maxine Buretta.

Fashioning an independent path

Buretta has been sewing since her grandmother taught her to thread a needle.

“I have an interest in fixing things, and I learned to hand sew as a small child,” said Buretta, who took on the enormous task for outfitting the Orlando players as her senior thesis.

“This would be a senior thesis project in a conservatory or even in a master’s program,” said Theatre Professor Richard Chambers, who first met Buretta when she took his introductory design class 

While Suffolk’s Theatre Department doesn’t offer a costume major, it has supported Buretta’s development as a costumer from the beginning. Theatre Department Director of Production Jim Bernhardt hired costume designer Leslie Held as a mentor for Buretta early on, and Held was brought back to work closely with her on Orlando.

“This is the sort of thing we do all the time,” said Chambers. “If a student has an interest in a specific area, such as scenery or lighting, we find a way to make it happen. On the other side, you need an independent student who has excellent work habits, maturity, and drive to make this happen, and Maxine has all of that.”

Chambers encouraged Buretta to broaden her knowledge and skills by taking art history classes and learning about color, drawing, and composition at Suffolk’s Art & Design Department.

Attention to detail

In a basement workroom at the Modern Theatre, Buretta is flanked by a dressmaker’s mannequin sporting a tunic from one of Orlando’s early ages. The rust-hued fabric is crisscrossed with gold threads, a color echoed in sleeve caps and breeches. Buretta demonstrates the quick-release magnetic closure that will allow for a quick costume change. 

Behind her is a sewing machine, and laid out on a nearby table are a pearl-studded bodice and other garb intended for the Queen Elizabeth character. The designs require extensive research, to the point where in March Buretta was on the hunt for distinctive styles of lace to reflect different eras.

The thesis project began in earnest before winter break when Buretta presented drawings she had created after reading the play and researching the eras involved. She has designed costumes that reflect each character’s style as they move through time. So, while Orlando is a man in the 16th and 17th centuries and a woman later on, the character’s sense of style continues through the centuries. A ruffle typical of one era will change to reflect the style of another. But there will be a ruffle.


Buretta has spent 40-plus hours a week since the end of January on the project, working with Held all day Thursdays through Sundays.

“The past three weeks we’ve crunched,” she said in mid-March, with the play’s opening three weeks away. “I’m past the initial hump of fear. Right now I’m living in the show.”

While Buretta is holding her own under pressure, “it’s not that she doesn’t get overwhelmed sometimes," said Chambers. “Her professors have been totally in support of what she’s doing and have allowed her some flexibility with assignments. I think that really speaks well of Suffolk.”

A year of self-discovery

Buretta came to the project in a round-about way, having entered Suffolk as a Psychology major with a minor in Theatre. She had made costumes for high school productions and, as a Suffolk freshman, outfitted the actors in a student showcase. By the end of that first year, her friendship group was in the Theatre Department.

“I discovered that is where my heart is,” said Buretta, who will graduate with the Class of 2017 as a Theatre major with a Psychology minor.

Buretta has worked on shows outside of Suffolk and will continue working with her mentor after graduation. She sees many possibilities in Boston’s lively theater, dance, and fashion scene.

“I love the theater in general, so doing costumes had lot of opportunity for growth,” she said. “It’s just fun. Every show is so different. You could do the same play three times, and, with different directors, actors, and interpretations, the treatments would be vastly different.”

Orlando photo album

About the production

The Suffolk Theatre Department production of Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, adapted by Sarah Ruhl, with guest director A. Nora Long, is playing April 6-9 at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre, 525 Washington St., Boston. For tickets, call 617-573-8282 or visit our website.

The Gender Parity Task Force of StageSource has awarded Orlando Standing “O”—awarded to local productions that champion the work of female, trans, gender-queer, and non-normative gender identities.