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Rat Lady of Portland.

Call her the Rat Lady of Portland. Call her Conjurewoman. Call on Jane Clugston to make your Nutcracker rats. And mice. Bears, too.

The theatrical mask and costume maker has a garage full of rats. Or rather, plaster molds of parts off rats, like heads and paws.

This gentle sould, who doesn't mind being called the Rat Lady but is really a theatrical mask and costume maker who does design and animation as well, is something of a specialist in making rat heads and costumes for ballet companies doing The Nutcracker.

For Oregon Ballet Theatre's lavish 1993 production, designed by New Yorker Campbell Baird, she made no fewer than twelve rats plus the Rat King's head and paws, as well as a bear and a couple of hobbyhorses. The Rat King's body was made in New York, as were the bulk of the costumes for this production.

"I keep plaster molds," Clugston explains, "because you never know when you might need them."

The self-styled artisan has needed the rat molds for four ballet companies in the past few years. In 1992 David Heuvel, a Portland-based costume designer who works for ballet companies all over the world, asked Clugston to make her first rats for BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. Clugston also made four hobbyhorses, three sheep, and the Nutcracker's head for the same production. A commission to make the Rat King's head for the Washington (D.C.) Ballet followed in the same year.

Heuvel, delighted with the careful attention to detail that is the hallmark of Clugston's work, then asked her to do a prototype Rat King head for a Nutcracker production he was designing for Ballet du Nord, which premiered in Paris last spring. An introduction to Campbell Baird followed. "What sold Baird on my work," Clugston says, "were the ears for the rats for BalletMet. They are grizzled, menacing, not at all cute."

OBT's rats aren't cute, either. They are made to look like the traditional European plague rats, brought to this continent by the early explorers. According to Clugston, "the feet are specially creepy and gnarled."

The process by which the rats are made is complicated and time-consuming. It takes place in Clugston's small studio in southeast Portland, where she works in a storefront cluttered with more plaster molds and materials related to her craft.

"If I have a slide of a design," she says, "I blow it up to size so the proportions are right. Otherwise, I make a clay model to scale."

A plaster mold gets made from the clay model; then a mold is made with latex or neoprene. Once the heads are cast, a coat of paint is applied and fake fur is put on. Airbrushing of shadows and the attachment of ears and whiskers are the finishing touches.

For the rats in OBT's Nutcracker Clugston used her younger daughter as a model because "she has a dancer's body." OBT's dancers were also part of the rat-making process, giving Clugston, whose principal experience has been in theater, valuable feedback about their requirements as dancers; heads with eyeholes for easy vision and feet with soles smooth enough for a glissade.
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Title Annotation:costume designer Jane Clugson
Author:West, Martha Ullman
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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