South Charlotte

Costume designer displays her talent behind the scenes

Michelle Rusgo's talent is costume design.

Old Farm resident Rusgo, 42, has been the volunteer costume designer for the Sandra and Leon Levine Jewish Community Center's drama program since 2007.

"Michelle Rusgo can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," said Tina Rogovin, current cast member for the center's production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

In previous shows, Rusgo has transformed Rogovin into Little Red Riding Hood in "The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf." Rogovin played a hen with a Holly Hobby bonnet in "Honk!"and Rusgo transformed Rogovin's children into a swan and froglet.

"Her costumes elevate our shows to a very professional level," said Rogovin.

Rusgo creates without any formal training. She loves to work with her hands, and she used to design hats in New York City.

Eight years ago she asked for a sewing machine for Hanukkah. The first costume she made was her son Dillon's fourth-grade Thanksgiving turkey costume.

"No one in the class wanted to be the turkey," said Rusgo.

Dillon volunteered, and Rusgo set out to make a fabulous outfit complete with a working tail. They still use that costume every year, she said.

In the fall of 2007, the Levine JCC was putting on a production of "Seussical The Musical." Susan and Stephen Gundersheim, the director and musical director/choreographer respectively, needed help with costumes.

Rusgo stepped forward. Since she and her family were new to Charlotte, Rusgo thought that volunteering would be a way to make friends and meet people.

The Gundersheims and Rusgo have collaborated on five productions. Their latest collaboration, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," will be performed at the Levine JCC on Dec. 4-5.

Rusgo said when they start a new project she lets the directors take the lead.

"I want to see what ideas (the Gundersheims) have," said Rusgo. "It's their vision, their show. I'm just their voice."

"Michelle is a godsend and a joy," said Susan Gundersheim. "I have seriously never worked with someone who is just as artistically gifted as she is patient, kind and genuinely 100 percent committed to what she is doing."

"Plus, her costumes are always fantastic," said Stephen Gundersheim.

Rusgo doesn't sing or dance, but she loves clothing and a challenge. She enjoys going to Goodwill and finding clothes that she can transform and make better.

With every production, there is always an "aha moment," said Rusgo. In "Honk!" it was when David Catenazzo transformed from an ugly duckling into a swan - "I'm thinking Elvis meets Liberace," said Stephen Gundersheim at the time. Rusgo delivered, and Catenazzo's swan costume got big laughs every performance.

Rusgo works her magic on casts as large as 60 people. She sews everything herself, and cost is always a factor. Parents supplement when necessary with items such as different colored shirts.

"Everyone works together to make it happen," said Rusgo.

In order to give it the distinct look that she and the directors desire, Rusgo reads over the script, attends rehearsals and watches mannerisms to get an idea of what each character is about.

"Each costume is challenging in its own right," said Rusgo.

Designing and creating costumes makes Rusgo happy. "I love a challenge, trying to figure things out myself," she said. "I'll die trying."

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