Clothes for "CATS"
Mendota Native a Theatrical Costume Director
By TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | November 15, 2010*** Published Sunday, Nov. 13 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
Dreams. Small to large to astronomically impossible, we all have dreams.
Tony Ray Hicks does, too.
Hicks' dreams carried him from the family farm in Mendota, Va., to stages all over the world. See Hicks' handiwork as costume director when Troika Entertainment's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" embarks upon Freedom Hall in Johnson City, Tenn., on Nov. 16, 2010.
One show, one night, loads of costumes courtesy of Hicks.
"All of our costumes are custom-designed and custom-painted," Hicks said recently by phone from a "Cats" tour stop in St. Louis, Mo. "To build a basic unitard takes about three weeks. It's a process."
So is Hicks' career. It's been a process, one step at a time from his Southwest Virginia beginnings to stages all over the world.
Born to Raymond and Linda Hicks in 1966 at Bristol Memorial Hospital in Bristol, Tenn., Hicks grew up on the family farm in Mendota. He figured out fairly early in life that he had absolutely no desire of becoming a farmer.
But that doesn't mean he didn't work on the farm. He did. However, his sister Lisa Brumett said that her brother had a way of combining that which he loved with that which he tolerated.
"We'd wonder why he was gone so long when he went out to feed the animals," Brumett said. "Well, he would sing to the pigs. He used to go out and sing to the animals when he was young."
Now that's neat, funny and sort of charming all rolled up into one.
"Yeah," Brumett said, "and he's gonna get me when he reads that!"
OK, Hicks sang to the pigs, but farming wasn't in his blood. He first found that which would change his life while attending high school at John Battle High School.
He found theater.
"I did," Hicks said. "It gave kids like myself an outlet. I wasn't into sports at all. Theater was my thing. It was important to me."
Though far from a traditional route for many kids, his parents supported him, said Hicks' sister.
"I never did like theater, but I was all for it if that's what he wanted to do," Brumett said.
That's exactly what he wanted to do.
"I couldn't imagine doing anything else," Hicks said. "I have to credit Theatre Bristol for that. When I got out of high school, I auditioned for "Fiddler on the Roof' at Theatre Bristol."
Call it Hicks' eureka moment.
"I realized that's where my calling was," he said. "I used to design costumes for Theatre Bristol back in the '80s."
During a down time in his work with Troika, Hicks returned to Theatre Bristol to direct a play or two, including "Pinocchio."
So, after high school, Hicks enrolled at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon. Hicks then transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and enrolled in the school's heralded theater program. He graduated in 1992.
"My degree is in performance," Hicks said. "I found out I made a better living in costuming [as opposed to acting]. People kept telling me that I was made for costuming."
Those people include his sister.
"He always loved to make things," Brumett said. "If you gave him a piece of material, he could sit down and make something."
She pointed out curtains in their late mother's kitchen.
"My mother loved roosters, and so he made curtains with roosters on them for her," Brumett said. "Anything my mother wanted he made it for her – dresses, aprons, curtains, anything."
Brumett added that her brother has also made outfits for her daughter, Krissa Hicks.
"She's 13," Brumett said. "He would always make my daughter's Halloween costumes – a princess costume, a butterfly and yes, a cat. He's made her beauty pageant dresses. Oh, they were beautiful. They looked like thousand-dollar dresses."
So it seems a perfect fit materialized when Hicks found employment with Troika Entertainment. The Gaithersburg, Md.-based company produces plays from "Cats" to "Fiddler on the Roof" that tour nationally and internationally.
"I've worked for Troika for 10 years," Hicks said. "I've been [costume director] for four years. I am in charge of hiring the wardrobe and costuming crew that tours with the shows. I'm also in charge of all the designers with our shows. It can be a bit overwhelming."
Though he travels some, Hicks does not travel to each "Cats" show. Consequently, he will most likely not be at the performance in Johnson City.
"I do travel some just to make sure it's maintained the way it ought to be," Hicks said.
That said, his job has taken Hicks all over the country and world.
"I've taken several shows to China, Japan, South America, Central America, Taiwan," Hicks said. "I've traveled pretty extensively. I've been to all 50 states."
Through the years, Hicks has also worked with some of the biggest names in entertainment. He has worked with singer Michael Bolton, in addition to such actors as Tony Randall, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Jasmine Guy and Sandy Duncan.
"It's a far cry from growing up on a farm in Mendota, Va.," Hicks said.
Meanwhile, back on the family farm, Hicks' father battles ill health. Given his job, Hicks isn't able to return home often.
"Our family has always been really close," Brumett said. "Bobo – that's Tony's nickname in the family – never fails to call at least once a day and sometimes two or three times a day."
That's even after having moved away from the area more than 20 years ago.
"When cell phones first came out, I remember him getting cell phone bills of $1,100 and $1,200," Brumett said. "Tony is a family person."
Given his father's declining health, Hicks has returned home more often of late. He most recently paid an unexpected visit home during the Halloween weekend.
"[Our father] didn't know that Tony was coming home," Brumett said, who lives with and cares for their father. "He said he was very proud of what Tony's done in his life while tears started coming down his face."
Then it was back to Baltimore, where Hicks lives, and wherever the world of theater takes him.
"I still act some, but I realized that this is my real calling," Hicks said. "No matter what anybody tells you, you've got to follow your heart and your dreams. Don't let anyone steal your magic."
IF YOU GO
When: Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Freedom Hall, 1320 Pactolas Road, Johnson City, Tenn.
Info: (423) 461-4884
Web and video: www.troika.com
"All of our costumes are custom-designed and custom-painted," Hicks said. (Photo courtesy © 2008, G CREATIVE)
"To build a basic unitard takes about three weeks. It's a process." (Photo courtesy © 2010 Joan Marcus)