A hot glue gun and a dream: Behind the scenes at the University Costume Shop

Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 9:45pm

A past SMTD production of 'Macbeth'

A past SMTD production of 'Macbeth' Buy this photo
File photo / Daily

It’s Halloween, and that means I have to find a costume. It’s not that I don’t have any ideas — I have plenty. There’s always Mulan, I’ve wanted to be a piece of sushi since freshman year and, quite honestly, Waldo doesn’t seem too bad right about now. But I have a few issues with Halloween costumes. First of all, Halloween is in the middle of the semester and I like to try and DIY what I wear; not a very good combination of activities, if you ask me. Second, you’re telling me I have to spend money on something I’m probably only ever going to wear once? I will do that for Christmas and maybe even New Year’s, but Halloween is a no-go. 

None of this is to say that I don’t like costumes or Halloween. I love both of them, it’s just that together, they can add up to a lot of work. So this year, instead of stressing over making a Halloween costume, I went to talk to the University Costume Shop about how they make costumes for various shows. Though the amount of work and time that goes into making a Halloween costume is daunting, it’s nothing compared to what goes behind the scenes for many University productions.  

Before actually going to the costume shop, however, they recommend you watch “What to Expect at the University Costume Shop.” It’s an introductory video and gives an overview of everything from how to get there to what happens at your final fitting. Unsurprisingly, the video is entertaining and informative, a well-made production perfect for anyone who wants to take a visit to the costume shop but finds themselves without the necessary talent to be cast in a University production. 

Located on the second floor of the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus, the University Costume Shop is a dream for performers and sewers alike. Upon walking in, dress forms are scattered throughout the shop and sewing machines sit in rows, some mid-project, others available for whatever the staff throws at them. At one point, I was distracted by the fact that some of the outlets hung from the ceiling, suspended on a track that could follow someone along as they ironed a larger piece. To be able to iron all in one go without the length of a cord to hold you back is something I’ve only dreamed of, and to see it in person at the costume shop was unimaginable. 

The physical aspects of the shop, however, would mean nothing without the people who use them. The costume shop’s team is composed of a costume shop manager, costume designer, wardrobe supervisor and multiple drapers. All these people come together to create the masterpieces you see on stage — to listen to them talk to about each of their creations and the shows they’ve worked on is like stepping into another world. 

But how do you even get into that world in the first place? It’s a different process for everyone. Take Lea Morello, a draper at the University Costume Shop. A philosophy major in college, she has been working with the costume shop since 2002 and has been in costumes for around 24 years. Though her love of sewing came from what she was doing as a stay-at-home mom, it started to become something more when Morello got a job as a part-time stitcher at the University Costume Shop. From there, she ended up going back to school for theater design and production and, eventually, found herself at the costume shop as a draper. The rest is history — a really impressive history, if you ask me.

Others, though, have always known that in some capacity, they’ll end up in theater. Christianne Meyers, a designer at the costume shop, grew up backstage watching her mother dance and eventually found her niche as a designer by the time college came around. For her, design was a way of merging her fascination with behind-the-scenes work and her love for art. With a BFA from Pace University, she spent a few years working in New York City, where she eventually got her masters at NYU. Afterward, she stayed in the city freelancing on a variety of projects off-Broadway and in regional theaters. In time, she realized that working 60 or more hours a week and living in the competitive culture of the New York City costume industry wasn’t for her. Come 2002, Meyers joined the University Costume Shop along with Morello and has designed 45 shows in the last 17 years.

While Morello and Meyers are important staples at the University Costume Shop, it is still a university costume shop, and would be incomplete without the presence of students honing their craft. Saawan Tiwari, a senior pursuing his BFA in theater design, talked about his life behind the scenes, a five-year-process that actually started in zoology. Though most of his time had been spent at a zoo rather than a studio in high school, he always jumped on the opportunity to work on a school play. His first project? Creating a donkey head for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” With little to no crafting background, Tiwari pulled together what he described as a “helmet contraption” with a wig glued onto it. Obviously, the donkey head was named Bernard. And while his first foray into costumes was not the most conventional, what Tiwari did have was a “hot glue gun and a dream,” the only things you really need to make it in theater. 

It took a few steps for Morello, Meyers and Tiwari to make it to the University Costume Shop, but they all eventually did. So, what does creating a costume actually entail? More often than not, it starts with the designer working with the director to come up with a vision for the show. The meetings can range from idea sessions on each side, with directors only coming with vague concepts of what they want, to detailed brainstorming inspired by a director who has everything mapped out in their head. 

But costumers can’t rely just on what the director wants — they have to know the actual show inside and out, too. From quick changes between scenes to historical renditions of various characters, costume designers are resident experts in every show they work on. Oftentimes, the designers and other costume makers know more about a production than the cast themselves, especially at the beginning. In order to effectively design a show, Meyers emphasized the importance of being able to make a decision and move on with it. “Designing is deciding,” according to Meyers. It’s also not surprising for them to start designing and choosing costumes before the show is even fully casted. Construction of the costume is everything from the undergarments to the makeup, so being not only familiar, but intimate with the director’s vision and the show is critical to developing good costumes. 

Understanding a show is an art in and of itself — Meyers noted that sometimes they do brand new shows while some have been done for centuries. Currently, the shop is working on the University production of famed opera “La Bohème” and as Meyers said, “they have been singing those same notes for 200 years.” In a case like “La Bohème,” where the director has put on the show four times and Meyers herself has worked on it before, designers understand the minute details of the show already. It’s an entirely different thing when the show has never been done or seen before. At times, they’re working on something where some of the cast and characters aren’t even worked out until the first rehearsal. It’s a dynamic job that takes a level of creative flexibility many wish they had.  

Once the designs are worked out, and even as they’re being finalized, they go to a draper, like Morello, who takes the ideas from their 2-D rendering to a 3-D mockup. This process can often vary — it might even start from a newly bought piece of clothing. In fact, one of the skirts for the upcoming “La Bohème” is a dyed skirt from Mod Cloth. When costumes do start from scratch, however, they go through a rigorous process that transforms them from an idea on some muslin to a piece of art on stage. Throughout fittings, Morello is constantly adjusting, looking where she can bring things in and take things out, aware of the fact that a costume is made to fit the person rather than the person to the costume. 

That attitude, however, is a more recent one, especially as more and more people are learning to embrace their body’s natural curves and lines. Both Meyers and Morello have worked in the industry for a little over two decades and have been at the University Costume Shop for 17 of those years. So, not only have they seen changing attitudes when it comes to body positivity, but they have also seen an increasingly diverse set of casts come through their doors. No longer does the typical tan work to fit every skin tone of a cast. The costume shop is cognizant of the diversity of their actors and always takes a skin tone swatch, a basic technique that can go a long way in making an actor feel comfortable in their costume. Morello highlighted the roles of directors in facilitating this change. She worked on a production of “Romeo and Juliet” that ignored the traditional casting and opted instead to explore the tensions that an interracial couple might experience in the production. 

Not everything has changed for the better, though. With how short audience attention spans can be, the demand for speed has increased dramatically within the industry. Sure, that might mean more costumes and more shows, but it takes away from the creative process — what you get in speed, you lose in what Meyers deems “cogitation time,” which is the time that an idea just sits. In the back of your head. Waiting until that moment of revelation and the designs just come together. 

Knowing how their creative processes reacts to the speedy needs of various shows is just one of the ways these artists have been shaped by their experiences working in the costume industry. Morello noted the importance of knowing your boundaries and how to prioritize projects — she is still able to make costumes for her grandkids while working at the costume shop by splitting who gets a costume which year. 

Tiwari spent the second semester of his freshman year taking 17 credits and trying to put together three different shows. One of these shows had a $150 budget for a large ensemble that saw some questionable communication between designer and producer. But he got it done, as an unpaid freshman, and it was still one of his favorite shows. The lesson here is that 17 credits is never a good idea, regardless of whether you’re running three shows and volunteering at the same time. But, beyond that, Tiwari emphasized the importance of pushing your boundaries and figuring out how to put yourself and what you want first. That is something we could all stand to learn at least once in our lives. 

Meyers drove home the idea that learning to let go is one of the biggest skills you can have as a designer. As a freelancer, she designed and made two $750 dresses for one of her shows that, eventually, the director decided to cut from the show. The same director “turned the set upside down.” So, what is a designer supposed to do when their work is tossed aside? For Meyers, the answer wasn’t to get angry or hold a grudge: Instead, she ended up shopping at Vivienne Tam’s studio with Frances McDormand. The whole thing happened relatively early on in her career, and Meyers was happy to note that now she is able to take things as they are and address problems in a cool, collected manner. The mark of a true professional.

So, where does all this leave me in my hunt for a Halloween costume? I have a wig. I did not design a full show or costumes for my grandkids. But it’s a step in the right direction. And, honestly, after seeing what costumers have to go through, that might be my only step. The staff at the University Costume Shop have been through it all and still make up a cast worthy of the productions they help create.