Christy Cunningham Railsback, an adjunct theater instructor, has designed award-winning costumes for Newman University theater and music performances since 2001, as well as for the Wichita theater community and beyond.
One of her latest projects has been creating the costumes for an upcoming PBS documentary, “Contested Plains,” written by Ken Spurgeon and Deb Goodrich.
The docudrama is based on the book, “The Moccasin Speaks: Living as Captives of the Dog Soldier Warriors,” by Arlene Feldmann Jauken, the great-granddaughter of one of the survivors.
“Contested Plains” recounts the true story of John and Lydia German, who left their home in Georgia with their seven children to seek a new life in Colorado. On Sept. 11, 1874, they encountered a Cheyenne raiding party comprising survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre and Washita attacks. Seeking retaliation, the warriors killed five family members and took four of the daughters hostage. The film describes what the girls endured during the cold winter and presents some of the negotiations for the girls’ release. It also details causes of the long-term conflict between the military and the tribes defending their homes.
“Co-costuming the PBS documentary has been an exciting new adventure for me, as most of my experience is with live theater,” Railsback said. “I enjoy seeing all of the behind-the-scenes preparations and working with all of the people who make everything happen.”
A step back in time
One thing Railsback looks forward to is going on location in western Kansas to film the attack scenes on the site where they actually occurred. Some of the scenes have already been filmed at the Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita, and later scenes will be filmed in Texas at a re-created Cheyenne campground.
For Railsback, the best part of costume design is the creative aspect. She also enjoys doing extensive research to determine the appropriate clothing style of the time period and situation. The difficult part is considering how all the costumes will look together and coming up with immediate solutions to unexpected problems.
“On a film set, a dozen unexpected extras may come in, and I have to put together costumes before filming can resume,” she explained. “A costume may not look right or new scenes are devised, and I have to have options available.”
So far, Railsback has thoroughly enjoyed working on “Contested Plains.”
“Working as a team with the actors and crew to bring together a PBS production is rewarding, and I especially am happy when an actor likes their costume, and the costume helps them find the character they are playing,” she said.
Railsback was brought onto the project by Newman’s director of theater, Mark Mannette, who’s serving as one of the film’s producers and first assistant director. He also has an acting role in the film.
Mannette has worked with the director of “Contested Plains” on other projects and feels that having two Newman faculty working on the documentary gives the theater department credibility.
“It shows potential students that their professors are working in the entertainment industry,” he said.
The “Contested Plains” documentary will be released in 2022 on PBS. The film is being produced by the White Deer Land Museum Foundation and Fall River Productions.