Kukeri (K)ostume Designer – Barbara Millikan

Consummate character prop designer, Barbara Millikan, designed and built characters (kukeri‘s perhaps…?) for this year’s Christmas Revels production of A Christmas in Old Europe.

She has designed and worked on many of the character props for the Christmas Revels shows including the dragon from the 2011 show, The King and the Fool and the trolls from the A Visit to the Scandinavian Northlands in 2008 and has made the most complex dragons, trolls and sea monsters since 2003 for the Christmas Revels!


Barbara & The Trolls

Where do you begin making a character ‘costume’ for something like a kukeri (kuker- singular) should there be a need to make one? The three R’s come to mind – Research Research Research! – which included talking to lots of people as well as the requisite web searches.

Kukeri is traditional Bulgarian ritual to scare away evil spirits, with costumed men performing the ritual

says Wikipedia. Why do we need to scare away evil spirits in this day and age? Can’t think of a single reason…

Alright, you might then turn to photos identified by a certain stage director for the types of ‘potential’ characters he might be envisioning based upon the script written by the talented Gray Eubank (more about him and that script later). If you Google around you might find a few examples. Here are some potentials characters passed the designer:


Seems pretty sinister, huh? Actually, the costumes and characters are very inventive, showing that the people who really design and build these things are quite talented and imaginative. There are some general themes: masks; sheep’s bells; horns; fur-like adornment; tall, extended necks, etc… the list goes on and on.

Okay, then what next? That’s when artistic imagination kicks in and you, given a set of potential characters destined to fit into a certain stage play, produce drawings of those potential kukeri:

dragon kukeri

horned kukeri

mask kukeri

hairy kukeri

Pretty amazing images all on their own. We’ve progressed then from a simple idea to 2-D characters put to paper. So now we have the potential characters of

Dragon, Horned, Masked and ‘Tall Hairy’ Kukeri (gotta love that rhyming on the last one…)

You pass along those drawings, decisions are made and… voilà! You’ve got characters with descriptive names, body shapes and adornments. Now to come up with an implementation plan to realize the vision.

Barbara took off from there and using her past design experiences started the construction process for the character props. Likely the more complex part of the process was the headdresses and how to make them wearable, if someone were perhaps to go so far as to wear them on stage. She has provided a schematic of the dragon kukeri, one of the characters she (might have) designed for this years show.

kukeri schematic

In this awesome exploded construction view of the head one can see how all these disparate pieces come together to make something so seemingly real. Should one be of the inclination to build such a headdress the bare bones are there for the intrepid.

She was also generous enough with her process to show in-process photos of the dragon head model detailing the backbone and headrest.

Kukeri alpha

And from Barbara here’s a bit more detail about the stops and starts of their construction:

“Primary construction materials are a bike helmet with a plastic bowl over that and then lots of blue polyfill along with a camping pad cut, shaped and held together with gaffers tape, zip ties and/or hot melt glue. The fabric for the head was sewed and/or glued on. There are a few wing nuts for the inevitable, maladjusted bike helmet. The dragon’s jaw is also bolted, allowing for adjustment of the opening.”

“It also requires a shop vac, lint rollers and a love of fake fur, so much that I look to be living in a house full of long-haired cats. The next part of the process is making adjustments so that things work and fit the wearer properly. In the first test run, they dropped more nuts and bolts than an Italian Ducati motorcycle. The bolt/nut assemblies were holding bells on a belt and they simply came loose or popped off the belt with movement. The nuts were replaced with lock nuts, the belt reinforced and things were moving again. For the next test, carpet tacks were used to hold part of the apparatus together. That didn’t work though and the carpet tacks were swapped out for sheetrock screws.”

kukeri beta

That is a start on how to make the headdress but there are still steps yet revealed to ‘flesh out’ the character costume…

One of the costume characters that might be appearing in this year’s production was the one on display at Carol Silverman’s excellent salon (Mumming in Bulgaria in the Context of Balkan Rituals) on November 10th. Here are some photos of parts of the character costume:



You’ll note there is fur of different types, horns, ears, bells, and… a person. Quite a bit to add still from the beginnings seen above. Barbara’s done a great job of showing a kukeri how-to!

Should you go to the show (and you should because you read all the way to the bottom!) you might just recognize one of these costume characters on stage. But who, or rather, what is inside???

Purchase your tickets today!


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