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Art School Productions Highlight Importance of Costume Design for Theater

Throughout the year, collaborations between the Schools of Fashion, Acting and Motion Pictures & Television help students gain experience in the many techniques and disciplines involved in onstage productions. Among the most critical for a successful stage production is costume design for theater.

With the saying “first impression is the last impression” in mind, a costume designer has to execute the work carefully in pre-production and follow the vision of the production director and scriptwriter. Every detail, from the color palette to the hemline of a shirt, contributes to the impact on the audience. The aim is to deliver a character-driven look, while staying within budget.

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From “In the Heights”

During the 2019 school year, students honed their artistry in plays, opera, and web series. They created immersive theater experiences under the creative direction of fashion school Costume Design Coordinator Alina Bokovikova and Costume Production Supervisor Bethany Deal.

Art of Visual Storytelling in a Musical

The spring 2019 semester production of In The Heights was put on by the School of Acting and directed by Clark Lewis. The musical is set in a Hispanic-American neighborhood in New York City’s Washington Heights. It’s a romantic story of breaking barriers to pursue dreams, even when they seem impossible.

BFA costume design students Tigress Hart, Xingxing Niu, Jasmin Santiago, Ting Xiong, Patrick Wang, and Binghui Zhou created the musical’s outfits as part of a Costume for Theater Production class. They portrayed the characters in “casual yet groovy costumes,” representative of the exuberant nature of the neighborhood.

The color palette of In The Heights was bright, in contrasting shades of red, yellow, orange and blue. Each outfit was handpicked by the designers to fit a character’s personality. Usnavi (Daniel Cancel) wore floral shirts to represent his shy and dreamy soul. Benny (Michael Houston) wore formal shirts to convey his workaholic attitude.

In classes and onstage, students learned that designing costumes to accurately convey a character takes time and effort. From research and sourcing to building the outfits and color coordination, designers have to multitask at all times. “We did extensive research into…what people wear in New York City,” explains Xion.

costume design 2020 in the heights photo by bob toy
From “In the Heights.” Photo by Bob Toy.

The design team pulled off a successful show with limited time and budget. “The students did amazing work translating the characters, as this play is very culturally focused,” says Bokovikova.

Then There’s the Unexpected

The costume designers for In the Heights faced a major setback when their budget was cut short just a few weeks before the show. Hart recalls the last-minute changes. “It’s not just coordinating with the actors but also with the directors and the production team. The most important thing was nailing the look, not just for us as creative students but for everyone in the show.

“It got a little tricky sometimes, but that’s the great thing about this environment. This is why having a costume shop is super important to us.”

Cutting the budget can mean the design process must start over. Then the designers have to come up with new solutions in a very limited time frame. The challenge, however, paid off. “The end results and seeing your work on the stage is the best of all,” shares Santiago.

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Costume design student Cody Lenz (left) and actor Michael Houston. Photo courtesy of the School of Motion Pictures & Television.

The designers say that the most exciting part of their journey is not just handpicking and designing the clothes, but facilitating the audience’s emotional connection to the story. “Every part of costume design helps to tell a story. It is the main path to visual storytelling,” says Bokovikova.

Behind the Scenes of How May I Help You?

In summer 2019, the Motion Pictures & Television and Fashion students collaborated on a short web series. Student designers Cody Lenz and Becky Flaherty took part in a Collaborative Project & Creating a Web Series class for the series.

How May I Help You? is centered around a building manager in an apartment complex in San Francisco. In each of six episodes, the manager is solving tenants’ problems.

Individual episodes can take hours to film, with many steps and a large cast and crew. The staff includes a main director for each episode, student producers, actors, set designers and costume designers. Producers, actors and directors are involved in the shooting process of each episode.

Costume designers focus on the outfit of each character, while set designers create each of the apartment and building facades used in the show.

Divide and Conquer to Maximize Creativity

Lenz and Flaherty shared the work, each working on three episodes. They took turns filling the roles of head costume designer and assistant. This created an easier transition between the episodes, as the students were aware of each other’s plans for the next episode.

The students explain that costume design and fashion design require different types of creativity. The designers have to fully understand a character, and the character’s personality and role in the production. Then the designers create a wardrobe for that character.

Assembling a wardrobe for screen production requires keeping many things in mind. For example, in a scene where a character is fixing an elevator, the actor was rigged for safety. Lenz and Flaherty had to create two identical outfits for the scene, maintaining a “natural” look while abiding by safety rules.

When a scene involved fake blood, duplicates of costumes had to be created. And finally, the costumes provided had to look good on camera from all angles.

While working on the web series, costume designers took on many additional roles, including stylists, character developers and creative directors. Projects like this help young costume designers get prepared for their future careers in film and stage productions.

The student designers had help from both Bokovikova and Deal, who guided Lenz and Flaherty through challenges with logistics and encouraged students to maintain creativity in the process. The students say the experience is invaluable.

Summer in Santa Cruz

Pirates of Penzance, a production by University of California Santa Cruz Music Department, marked the third year of collaboration between the costume program at the Academy and UC Santa Cruz. The lively operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan is set in the late 19th century on the coast of England. It covers the story of dandy pirates and their encounter with the Modern Major General and his lovely wards.

costume design 2020 pirates of penzance photo by steve dibartolomeo
From “Pirates of Penzance.” Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.

The costumes for this production were designed by MFA Fashion student Marisely Cortes, assisted by undergraduate students Chelsea Summer, Siyue Pan, Meng Zhang and Xiong. At the request of director Sheila Willey, the show was sprinkled with elements of Santa Cruz, paying homage to both the university beach town and to the English beach town the play is set in.

As lead designer, Cortes chose to make the four main wards—Edith, Mabel, Kate and Isabel—stand out from the rest of the cast by putting them in bright, royal tones, and keeping prints minimal.

“These costumes are an eclectic mix of period-accurate silhouettes and local beach inspiration,” explains Cortes. “By mixing both 17th- and 18th-century silhouettes and pulling inspiration from Santa Cruz by way of color and floral prints, we were able to create beautiful and unique costumes that capture the eye and show appreciation for centuries-old fashion.”

For the pirates, she kept to traditional looks of the 18th century, while incorporating playful patterns and prints to showcase their eclectic travels. The pirate king’s frock coat was trimmed with quilted patterns. The Modern Major General was festooned with military regalia that emphasized the comedy and absurdity of the show.

“Santa Cruz, being the relaxed beach town that it is, allowed us to be more relaxed in our designs,” says Cortes. “The pirate costumes are set in the 17th century, but incorporate funky, coastal patterns. The costumes for the daughters are set in the 18th century, but feature vibrant floral prints for a touch of present-day beach town style.”

Cortes is grateful for the support of her design team. She recalls the challenges of the production. “It was the first time I designed for such a big show, so this was a big challenge for me,” she says. “Many times the original ideas changed. We had to adapt and let them go, but always remember our main concept.”

Fall Collaborations: Incubus and One Acts

The fall semester featured a collaboration on the powerful Halloween experience Incubus, produced by the School of Acting under Director of Theater Programs Hector Zavala.

Set after the 1906 San Francisco fire, the story of Incubus centers around a mother and her two adopted children. Her daughter is having nightmares, so she reaches out for help to a shaman who summons demons instead of helping.

costume design 2020 incubus photo by meiyu jing
From “Incubus.” Photo by Meiyu Jing.

Kendra Evans, Trinity Hamilton, Phoebe Taylor, Yikun Wang, Ziman Yue, Pan and Xiong researched and created their own costume designs for the demons. Each student rendered the characters, shopped for fabric and other textiles, and contributed to the overall look of the show. The students used complicated construction techniques such as padding, illumination, building from unconventional materials, and distressing.

The final project of 2019 was a collection of one-act plays managed by Zavala. These 10 to 15-minute productions were individually directed. Each of the costume design students designed one or two of the shows, which range in style, setting and genre to create a fun-filled night of theater.

Original article by By Priyanka Malhotra and Christianne Philippone

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