Protecting the Fabric of Edmonton’s Theatre Community

Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund recipient Leona Brausen has spent 40 years in the theatre world, as both a costume designer and actress

Growing up in west Edmonton, Leona Brausen didn’t see many plays or performances, and had no theatrical ambitions (unlike her older brother, professional actor Tom Wood). She says her 40-year career in theatre was the result of a whole lot of serendipity — beginning with meeting future playwright Stewart Lemoine in a high school drama class.

“He noticed me and I noticed him and, he was like, ‘I’ve written a short play, want to be in it?’” she says. The two struck up a friendship and artistic collaboration that continued after high school when Lemoine asked Brausen to act in a short play he’d written for the inaugural Edmonton International Fringe Festival. Lemoine continued to write and produce shows, and Brausen continued to act in them until moving to New York City in the early 1980s with her then-partner, a law student.

Here Brausen worked in NYC’s streetwear/clubwear scene as both a stylist and jewellery maker. “It was an amazing experience.” After returning to Edmonton, she continued to act for her own enjoyment and, to pay the bills, got a job at a new- and second-hand clothing boutique on Whyte Avenue called Zoryana.

“I learned a lot about clothes, taking in consignment, and choosing items for the store,” she says. “I just loved it.”

The knowledge she gained soon came in handy when she started costuming for Lemoine’s plays out of economic necessity. She’d scour the city’s thrift stores in search of garments suitable for costumes, including vintage items from different eras.

It was fun for Brausen, who intuitively understood the clothing of different historical periods and, as a performer, knew what actors needed to get into character. Her talent made her a sought-after costumer within Edmonton’s theatre community, on top of being a celebrated actor and improv performer.

Filmmaker and musician Trevor Anderson, a long-time Edmontonian, got to know Brausen in 1998, when she performed in a play he’d co-written with Lemoine for the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. Later, he directed her in several seasons of Die Nasty (a live improv show) and co-wrote a play with Brausen. More recently, Brausen has done the costuming for Anderson’s short films and music videos, including The Man That Got Away, which won the prestigious D.A.A.D. Short Film Prize at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.

“Leona is a beloved member of the Edmonton theatre community,” he says. “She’s a terrific artist, she’s an actor, she’s an improviser, and she’s a costume designer. To know her is to love her.”

This year, he nominated Brausen for the Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund, a collaboration between Edmonton Community Foundation and the Edmonton Arts Council. The annual awards are given to accomplished creative professionals to encourage them to continue making art in Edmonton. “I’ve been the lucky recipient of it, so I know it’s not just a cash injection, but a shot-in-the-arm of enthusiasm that can be the pick-me-up an artist needs to keep slugging away,” says Anderson.

The funds will allow Brausen to catalogue, preserve, and ultimately showcase the massive collection of garments she’s acquired over four decades. At the moment, they fill up most of her small, 1928 house, as well as a shed she erected in the backyard for the overflow. “It’s curated hoarding,” she laughs. The project will ensure the garments aren’t lost to time and the elements, especially the many vintage pieces at risk of disintegration.

Brausen says the award couldn’t have come at a better time as COVID-19 has cost her a great many opportunities. But it’s also a happy reminder of why she’s chosen to build her career here. “With the EATF, Edmonton proves itself, yet again, to be a great place for artists to be.”

Learn more about the EATF