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Photograph by Jamie Betts
A bear's comfort

A stitching assignment teaches lessons about service, too.

This fall in the basement of the Modlin Center, 10 students sorted through bright fabrics to pick out prints for arms, legs, bellies, and noses. They cut them out and oh-so-carefully stitched them together and then stuffed them. It was a teddy bear-making assignment for theater professor Johann Stegmeir’s Introduction to Costume Design course, but these bears aren’t just any class project.

When the bears are done, each one finds a new home with a patient at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

“We start this course learning hand-sewing techniques before moving on to machine sewing,” Stegmeir said. “The bear project is an opportunity for the students to put both of those skills into practice.”

During the semester, students logged lab hours building costumes for the Department of Theatre and Dance productions and progressed to making masks before designing costumes as a final project.

Stegmeir has included the bear project as part of the course for more than a decade, and he estimates that students have stitched and donated 125 to 130 bears.

But the bear project isn’t just a good deed; it also offers the students insight into what it takes to be a theater artist.

“In the theater, you want to do a good job and take ownership of your work, but everything you make, you give away to the audience, whether you’re an actor, a designer, or building costumes,” Stegmeir said. “The students fall in love with their bears as they work on them; they have ownership, and then they give them away. It helps them understand what life as a theater artist is like.”