Backstage at the Cabaret with Kerri Lea Robbins

Kerri Robbins
Kerri Robbins

Designer Kerri Lea Robbins has costumed more than 60 productions for the Oregon Cabaret Theatre.

Starting in the 1980s, armed with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Southern Oregon University and a master’s degree in costume design from New York University, Robbins spent 10 years creating props and soft goods for numerous Broadway shows.

She then taught costume design and makeup at SOU before joining Craig Hudson and the design team at OCT. Robbins created the astonishing costumes for its current production, “The Wizard of Panto-Land.” We met at Starbucks next to SOU.

EH: Do you have a theory or philosophy of costuming?

KLR: My main job is to make the actors look and feel good. If they don’t feel good about themselves, they’re not going to act well. If an actor is having a difficult time, I’ll ask them, “What do you want in your pockets?” I’ll talk to them about their character and find out if there’s something special I can give them. Key chains, boxer shorts, or silk underwear are details that make the actors feel good or help them find their character. I try to stay fresh, so that things don’t look alike. When you start seeing a pattern and start recognizing someone’s work, I would like to stay not so recognizable. That’s my only real theory, just to keep myself fresh.

EH: How do the actors change so quickly?

KLR: I’ve become a master at fast changes. We usually don’t have anyone backstage to dress the actors. I have to find creative ways to open costumes in the front so that they can dress themselves. Most of the time you can change three things: the headgear, the body and the shoes. If you change all of those, the costume has to be in one piece.

EH: How long does it take to costume a show?

KLR: I think we do most shows in three weeks. I have to be ready before the actors get here. I often don’t have time to do drawings. We meet the actors, and usually have a photo shoot the following week. It’s, “Here’s your costume. We’ll fit it to you.” We plot out what we want in the photo shoot, and I try to do as much as possible before then. We all work together. It is a collaborative art form. We work very closely and very easily together. It’s just a breeze.

EH: Tell me about costuming “The Wizard of Panto-Land.”

KLR: I’ve wanted to go green, and I’ve been working on collage clothing art. It went from there. We saved bottle tops and cans. I found the chenille bedspread for the Lion; his curls came from spiral notebooks. Also, Brillo pads are wonderful for hair.

EH: How did you get into costume design?

KLR: I’ve always done it. Do you know the ballerina in jewelry boxes, that turns around to music? Mine had a wardrobe before I was five. She looked too cold to me. I remember trying to figure out how to put a winter tutu on her. I always dressed every doll, every animal, anything that could have clothing.

EH: What is it about theater that makes it so attractive?

KLR: For me it’s getting outside of myself to create something. It’s visualizing something. I just love making things. I can’t define why I have this passion. It’s a part of me.

“The Wizard of Panto-Land” plays at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre through Dec. 31. Performances are nightly at 8 p.m. except Dec. 24-25, with Sunday brunch matinees at 1 p.m. For tickets, visit, or call 541-488-2902.

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