By Sarah Plummer
Paul Contin is one man with many talents. You might say what he touches turns to gold; even aluminum foil, newsprint and toilet paper can be transformed into elaborate sets and stage props at the Historic Fayette Theater in Fayetteville.
And while he has spent the last eight years lending his costuming, set design and construction talent to communities in several surrounding counties, he got his start where many young dreamers go to make it big — The Big Apple.
Contin said his life has been a story fit for the silver screen, from coming to New York City from the Dominican Republic as a boy to being “discovered” accidentally in the city’s subway.
“When I was a little boy in the Dominican Republic, I used to make things from paper and put on plays for our community,” he explained. He developed his artistic sense with those materials that were available to him.
Today he is a member of the Guild of American Papercutters and can do detailed life-sized or profile silhouettes in seconds.
In addition is his inherent sleight of hand, for which he credits his mother, an admired seamstress in the Dominican Republic.
“She taught me how to sew and how to make a well-made dress. So when I came to New York, I started thinking about working in fashion,” he said.
“After only being in New York one year, I was on the train leaving school. I had my portfolio and books. A gentleman got up and on his way out put a business card in my pocket and said, ‘You will find this very interesting,’” he recalled.
As it turned out, the anonymous businessman worked with costume designer Charles Blackburn, who, among other things, designed costumes for the off-Broadway premiere of “The Fantastiks.”
“I went to the address on the card, which was on Broadway, and met the designer. I took a pair of scissors and started cutting, without thinking, and cut a small dress,” he said.
The designer was impressed and had Contin begin working with his costumes.
“Working under the direction of Mr. Blackburn was like working and learning at the same time. He would bring the music of the show I was working on and tell me which dress would come in what scene and why. I learned all of the big shows like ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘My Fair Lady,’” Contin shared.
Contin worked with Blackburn for 10 years before getting a big break.
After an unreliable hairdresser wigged out before a show, Contin was entrusted to do the hairdresses for “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera.
Eventually the business was sold in the 1970s and Contin went to Florida where he owned an upscale boutique with Cher-inspired extravagant evening and wedding gowns.
After then working with sports attire in Richmond, Va., he visited Fayetteville where his brother and sister-in-law lived in 1992.
“I told them I would stay a week with them in Fayetteville and I stayed longer. I worked with The College of West Virginia and discovered this theater was abandoned and it bothered me,” he explained.
He gathered a group of 60 high school students who volunteered to help clean the space and perform a show called “Foxfire.”
Drawing from his past and his ability to manipulate common materials in an uncommon way, Contin made Foxfire’s set completely out of newspaper, which drew a great deal of attention.
He then produced and designed “Cinderella” with two male leads playing the stepsisters. For that production he created the horse and carriage out of aluminum foil.
His work out of these textiles looks high-end. He has even made an “iced” prop cake out of toilet paper for the Fayette Theater’s current production that looks real enough to eat.
Eventually following a job offer, Contin went back south to Waynesville, N.C., where he became the costumer for the then newly constructed theater HART, Haywood Arts Regional Theater.
But Contin returned to the mountains of West Virginia in 2004 and has been sharing his talent with the Historic Fayette Theater ever since. He also brings his talent to the community in other ways, by working with Magic Makers Costumes in Huntington and creating historical costumes for local events, like the Victorian Tea at Oak Hill’s Tea Festival.
On Oct. 23, his Queen Victoria costume will be worn at the Raleigh County Public Library’s “An Evening With Charles Dickens.”
Contin also did set and prop design for the Historic Fayette Theater’s current production of “The Red Velvet Cake War.”
Tickets are available now for the remaining performances, Oct. 5, 6, 12, and 13 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. For more information about the show or tickets, call 304-574-4655.
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