The rooms inside her shop are filled with racks of hanging clothes, cartons of shoes, small tables with sewing machines, a mannequin, and shelves full of props including masks and feather hats. It is with these surroundings that she sketches, sews, and assembles to help create the fantasy that theatre is all about.
Manning also employs a number of craft techniques to costumes when necessary like hand-painting and airbrush, reviews scripts and sound recordings for character detail, and researches historical sources for period styles. She fixes wigs, helps to apply makeup, and is always on hand during shows to help actors make quick changes.
Before a production, she sits down with the theatre director, music conductor, lighting and set designers, and choreographer (if dance is involved). “We'll go over the script, score, and libretto and decide a definite place in time and the look—whether it will be somber or cheerful—and we troubleshoot,” says Manning. “We try to be as authentic as possible for every production, but every now and then, we ‘fudge' a little bit. Theatre is magic and optical illusion, so the audience doesn't know the tricks we're playing.”
Born in Chicago, Manning began hand sewing when she was seven, and was still very young when her family moved to Birmingham. After high school, she began taking art classes at Birmingham-Southern. Her father, who was unconvinced she could earn a living as an artist, insisted Manning apply for a real estate license instead. And she did, though it was followed by some unhappy years. “By the time I was 24, I was devastated and without a purpose or direction,” she recalls.
“A friend encouraged me to apply to the Birmingham Civic Opera, where I eventually became the apprentice of an opera director and designer who was new in the city after spending many years in the opera world of Vienna, Austria. After working on four major operas with him, he told me I would become a designer.”
BSC Music Professor Dr. Thomas Gibbs was one of the opera professionals with whom she worked and the reason she came to Birmingham-Southern once the opera company fell on hard times. Since then, Manning's loyalty and her visual artistry have continued to unfold.
During one break in the college's production schedule, she was fortunate to serve behind the curtain for the '80s television film Benny's Place featuring actors Louis Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson, and, later, served as an assistant to an Emmy Award-winning costume designer noted for the film Holocaust. In the last decade, Manning has won several honorable mentions and awards for exquisite costume design,
including an award from the Alabama Conference of Theatre and Speech for the BSC production Hamlet: the Musical. The BSC student honorary Alpha Psi Omega even added to her awards with a plaque honoring her long years of work in theatre.
She received an additional benefit several years ago when her mom joined her on the Hilltop as a contract employee to create a mother-daughter sewing team. “My mom can do amazing things as a seamstress and she handles the really hard sewing,” notes Manning. “I bounce quite a few of my ideas off her. Plus, she remembers the clothes and shoes of the World War II era, which helps me out a lot.”
Manning at one time was heavily involved in freelance work during production breaks. She has designed costumes for local and statewide ballet, opera, and theatre circuits, and has led several fine arts workshops. Now, she is often called on as a consultant and teaches a children's theatre art camp at BSC during summers.
Throughout the years, Manning has acquired a reputation for her kindness, and admits she and her mom have taught many students, including work-study students, the life skill of sewing. She also has provided contacts for alumni pursuing jobs in theatre. “She teaches students about the dedication and discipline it takes to be successful in a creative endeavor,” says BSC Professor of Theatre Michael Flowers. “She cares passionately about them and about doing her best work all the time.”
Being good to people has been important for the networks she has established with local, regional, national, and international costume resources. A director in Los Angeles once used Manning's Mayan headbands in an 80,000-audience show, and her hand puppets have been used in South Africa.
She says the drama community is tightly knit and mutually dependent upon one another. “We often have to call on each other to find items that are missing for a production,” Manning explains. “Plus, I get a lot of help on campus too, for instance, when BSC history professors give me information about a specific time period. I learn a lot from contacting people and doing research.”
During tech week, the crunch time right before a show, Manning says she may put in 70-80 hours of work. “My goal is to make sure the students look really good in the costumes they wear,” she says. “But the most important part for me is encouraging young actors.”