Vergennes' Dawn Wagner is a paper-hat genius

DAWN WAGNER SHOWS off three of the paper hats she’s made for Carnevale. Wagner manages this annual event at the Vergennes Opera House and is hosting a hat-making workshop and tea party at the Sheldon Museum this Sunday. Independent photo/Steve James

DAWN WAGNER ALSO keeps chickens in her spare time. Independent photo/Steve James

ONE OF WAGNER'S paper-hat creations. Independent photo/Steve James

VERGENNES — What do you get when you take a stage manager from New York City, transplant them in Vergennes and give them chickens, and a knack for making cookies, chocolates and costumes?

A messy dining room table. That’s what.

Dawn Wagner, a self-described “midnight crafter,” knows all about this.

“I put the kids to bed and get crafting,” said the mother of two. “I usually start around 8 p.m.”

The work she’s doing depends on the season.

Right now she’s preparing for the Mad Hatter Tea Party and Hat Workshop at the Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, where kids as young as five can create up-cycled paper masterpieces perfect to wear to the tea party to be held in the garden that afternoon. Hopefully, you’ve already signed up because the event on Sunday, Aug. 11, is sold out.

Paper hats have become a signature craft for Wagner — honestly, she’s somewhat of a hat genius. She showcased her first paper-hat creation while visiting for Carnevale (an evening of costumes, entertainment, games and community spirit at the Vergennes Opera House) in 2016. The hat was an all white tribute to Marco Polo with a ship cresting waves of paper hair that stood maybe three-feet high.

“That event was my first hat,” she remembered.

At the time, they were visiting friends Jeff and Andrew Fritz, in Vergennes. But Wagner was no stranger to the Little City. The upstate New York native had been coming to Vermont since fourth grade — her grandparents had a place in Addison. Then her family actually moved to Vergennes for her junior and senior year of high school (she’s a 1995 VUHS grad). So it wasn’t too much of leap in 2016 for Wagner and her own family to decide that it was time to leave the Big Apple and make the Little City their new home.

They moved into the Fritz carriage house and Wagner joined the Carnevale team as event manager.

Since running the last three Carnevale events, Wagner has made a fanciful hat for each: her second hat was all black with a circus theme; her third was a jungle hat with a purple snake; and her latest hat was steam punk inspired with copper-colored gears.

“They’re all made out of paper, glue and recycled cardboard,” she said, adding that she hand paints all the paper before assembly. “I like to see what I can build with paper… I love doing it, it’s super fun.”

Fun, yes. But also immensely time consuming.

“Oh, it takes so many hours,” Wagner said, not even venturing a guess as to how long her creations take. That’s besides the point anyway.

Creating art (of many kinds) is Wagner’s outlet, and has been since high school.

“When we moved, I left a big school with tons of art programs and came here where the only art class I hadn’t taken was ceramics — boring,” Wagner said. But then the A.R.T. program started with Steve Small and Candace Burkle; Wagner was part of the first year. “It saved me from feeling artistically deprived — it was such a great incubator.”

Wagner carried on her love of technical theater and costuming at the University of Vermont, where she double majored in studio art with a concentration in sculpture and technical theater with a concentration in stage management. Oh, and she also was trained as a chocolatier while working for Champlain Chocolates.

A year after graduating UVM in ’99, Wagner left for New York City. There she worked for about 16 years as an Actor’s Equity stage manager.

“I did a lot of off-Broadway shows,” she said. “Basically I’m the one managing what the director says; it’s a lot of scheduling; running the rehearsals every day; tracking all the actors’ blocking; organizing all the lights, sounds and costumes; and calling all the light and sound cues, understudy prep, and then once the director leaves, keeping their vision together.”

Wagner worked for New York Stage and Film, LAByrinth Theater Company, Manhattan Theatre Club and Radio City Christmas Spectacular (on Broadway).

“I never went into costuming in New York and missed it,” she said. “At UVM, Alan Mosser, the Costume Shop Supervisor, told me, ‘Do whatever you need to do to stay inspired,’ and that stuck with me.”

Wagner said she’s always loved corsetry and 15th-16th Century underpinnings, so she went back to what inspires her for the hats and costumes she creates now.

Aside from her costumes and hats, Wagner also uses her inspiration to do graphic design, make and decorate cookies, and exercise her skills as a chocolatier at Daily Chocolates.

“You never really know what you’re gonna get yourself into,” Wagner said. “I definitely haven’t figured out what I do yet… I just know it needs to be artistic.”

Through all the side crafts, Wagner’s kept up her Equity card — just in case. And she’s had a few gigs as a professional stage manager, but she’s focusing that skill set more on event management these days.

“Carnevale is my baby,” Wagner said. “It’s a great creative outlet for me, but it is an intense few months… I’m excited that for the past two years it’s been the event to come to — now we know we’re going to get at least 200 people.”

Last year, Wagner involved A.R.T. students to help build the event’s games. “I loved involving A.R.T.,” she said. “It really came full circle for me.”

What can we expect from the annual event in 2020?

Wagner would only say, “It’s going to be sparkly.”

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