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Article Published November 6, 2019

Nelson Gets Creative to Assist Tabor Arts Branford’s ‘Annie Jr.’

By Pam Johnson/

If there’s anyone in town who knows that “’re never fully dressed without a smile,” it’s got to be Sarah Nelson, the creative costumer transforming Tabor Arts Branford’s youthful players into the iconic cast of Annie Jr., coming Friday to Sunday, Nov. 15 to 17 to the Tabor stage.

“I started back in August, with thoughts and coming up with ideas,” says Sarah. “And now we’re in that real crunch time, to get it completed.”

Tabor Arts Branford presents Annie Jr. for four performances including Friday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 16 at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. All shows take place on the Tabor stage, 45 Tabor Drive in Branford. Advance tickets (adults, $10; children 5 to 12, $5) are available now at

Volunteering with Tabor Arts Branford is a full-circle experience for Sarah. It circles back to her time as a Branford High School (BHS) student and comes around to a little over two years ago, when she was delighted to be reunited with friends (and now, even a special teacher) thanks to Tabor’s youth musical programs.

“I first did costumes way back in high school. I was too shy to actually audition to be in the play, so I found my way in through costumes, and absolutely fell in love with the creativity behind it,” says Sarah, who thanks BHS retired musical/choir director Cathyann Roding for first giving her a shot at assisting with costumery.

Sarah, who graduated with the BHS Class of 2002, assisted with costumes for BHS musicals including Crazy for You, Lil Abner, Guys and Dolls, and Anything Goes during her time at BHS. She graduated from BHS one year ahead of her friend Colin Sheehan, who starred in BHS musicals and became Tabor Arts Branford’s musical/artistic director in 2017. Beginning with Annie Jr., Tabor’s youth musicals will also have a new musical production accompanist: Cathyann Roding.

Sarah says it feels great to be back as a part of this creative team, and thanks Sheehan for “drawing me in.”

“Colin and I have been close friends since I can remember,” says Sarah. “Branford is so lucky to have Tabor Arts and what Colin Sheehan is doing with the program. A lot of us who help out are Branford alumni who are all coming back to work together again because of him.”

Sarah’s first involvement with Tabor Arts, under Sheehan’s new direction, was to sign up her daughter, Paityn, to join Disney’s Magical Cabaret at Tabor in 2017. Now, Paityn, who will turn nine in November, is playing three different roles in Annie Jr.

“She absolutely fell in love with performing, with the singing, the acting, with everything,” says Sarah, who got involved as a Tabor Arts volunteer soon after Disney’s Magical Cabaret concluded.

“Colin said, ‘Hey, would you share your skills and help us out with costumes?’” Sarah recalls. “And I said, ‘Absolutely!’”

Sarah has since costumed kids for Tabor musicals including Willy Wonka Jr. (2018), Seussical Jr. (2019) and now Annie Jr. She also assists Sheehan and another BHS alumnus, Michael Martone, with youth costumes for their burgeoning Branford theater program, Shoreline Theatre Company (STC). Since 2018, Sheehan and Martone have co-directed youth and adult community theater with STC through Branford Parks & Recreation. Martone is also a BHS music educator and the school’s director of choirs.

STC will present Frozen Jr. at the Cathyann Roding Auditorium at BHS in January 2020, with costumes by Sarah. She also costumed STC’s Elf Jr. (2018) and Alice in Wonderland Jr. (2019). Even as she wraps up working on Tabor’s Annie Jr. and plans for STC’s Frozen Jr., Sarah’s also thinking about the costumes she’ll be gathering for Tabor’s spring 2020 musical, Beauty and the Beast Jr.

For Sarah, part of the challenge of bringing any character to life through costumes is working within each show’s budget limit and gathering talented assistance. In some cases, she’ll lean on friends who sew to create amazing dresses, such as Tabor co-volunteer and show parent Kristen Gilfeather.

“Kristen is a huge help to me with her sewing skills. I couldn’t costume the shows at Tabor without her,” Sarah notes.

Sarah will also gladly forage through thrift shops to find the basis of costumes that can be transformed by her artful touch. For Annie Jr., Sarah turned to Gilfeather to get Annie’s iconic red dress just right. Sarah also was responsible for coming up with costumes that range from orphan outfits to some classic Hollywood glamour and even turning one youthful cast member into Annie’s famous little dog, Sandy.

When she’s not volunteering to costume many of the shoreline area’s talented youth, Sarah dedicates several hours each week to her training to run half-marathons. She’s been at it for about six years, coming back “stronger than ever” after major reconstruction of an ankle three years ago, she says. In fact, when Sarah ran her most recent half marathon in October, she broke the two-hour mark for the first time.

“That was a huge accomplishment for me,” says Sarah.

In her work, Sarah is currently following in the footsteps of her mom, retired Tisko Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kathy Nelson. Sarah is a paraprofessional for Branford Public Schools (BPS) at Tisko, working with pre-K students.

“About four years ago, when a position opened in the pre-K for a full-time paraprofessional, I jumped on that as soon as I could,” says Sarah, who remains a Branford resident. “I love kids, and that was always one of my main factors when I was in college, that I knew I wanted to work with kids in some aspect. So when my mom retired from Tisko, I thought to myself, ‘Let me step up and see if there’s a job.’ And there was.”

Kathy Nelson retired from BPS in 2016 after teaching for 39 years. Sarah remembers attending Tisko while her mom was in the classroom (she didn’t have her as a teacher, however). Now, Sarah is enjoying being an educator in the same building where her own daughter attends school. Paityn is now a Tisko 3rd-grader.

“I know what it was like growing up with my mom in the building, and I know for my daughter and for my sake, it’s kind of comforting to know we’re not that far away from each other,” says Sarah.

As a mom, Sarah’s also delighted with the opportunities Branford kids have to explore theater arts through programs that are being shared by Sheehan, including those offered through Tabor Arts Branford.

“It’s a no-pressure theater opportunity for them. They can audition and shoot for the highest role, or they might say, ‘I just want to be part of the ensemble. I just want to get up there and try it out,’” says Sarah. “ I’m just so thankful that Colin has brought this opportunity to town. I’m thankful for being involved in it—I kind of forgot how much I loved it! My daughter and I are able to bond over this, and I’m able to bond with so many young kids. And then I get to see them rehearsing on stage, and excelling outside of Tabor. It’s so great to see them excelling in so many areas.”