By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
On a Wednesday afternoon, the costume shop in Rockefeller Arts Center is aflutter with activity. Amid several racks of clothing and many mannequins, drawings of designs cover the walls and bits of fabric can be found on every surface. The sound of sewing machine mixes with the chatter of students and instructors working together to bring their ideas from paper to the dress form.
OBSERVER Photo by April Diodato
From left: Costume design students Danielle Waterman, Anna Slocum and Amanda Moore pose together in the SUNY Fredonia costume shop, wearing hats from their upcoming production, “Stage Door.”
Senior costume design major Anna Slocum and Patrick Rocheleau, assistant director of Rockefeller Arts Center, buzz around Kathleen Grace Fiori, a senior theatre student and one of the stars of "Stage Door," SUNY Fredonia's spring production.
It's Fiori's first fitting for "Stage Door," one of several Slocum had scheduled for the week. Fiori will be portraying Jean Maitland, an aspiring actress who makes the journey from a boarding house to Hollywood. Like her character, the dress Fiori is currently modeling will be making a transition, from a white muslin mockup to a vibrant red, show-stopping gown. Slocum, the costume designer for "Stage Door," created this dress in addition to more than 90 other ensembles. This is the biggest show she has ever been responsible for.
"Do we want to take a look at the hem now?" Rocheleau asks Slocum as he pins the muslin in place.
"I have some options for shoes," Slocum replied thoughtfully, stepping back to examine the dress from another angle.
In between advising several students working on different projects for upcoming productions and other coursework, Costume Shop Supervisor Laurel Walford steps in, examining the way the fabric falls.
"Are you adjusting where the waist is fitting?" Walford asks.
The actors will be the ones taking their bows on stage after the performance. However, it is costume design that is the fabric holding the Department of Theatre and Dance productions together. In this one small costume shop, hundreds of garments are made for an average of nine to 10 SUNY Fredonia productions per year. Associate Professor of Costume Design Dixon Reynolds said that this shop supports all of the Theatre and Dance productions, as well as the Hillman Opera and the student organization PAC (Performing Acts Company).
"Without the costume design element of our program we wouldn't have a theater season, really," said Tom Loughlin, chair of SUNY Fredonia's Department of Theatre and Dance. "Costumes are an absolutely essential part of what goes into the creation not only of the world of the play but of individual characters in the play. The costume design element of our program allows us to fully define and shape characters in a very specific manner, and thus gives us a unique vision of the play rather than the generic one you get by renting."
"When people come to the theater, they don't realize all of the stuff that happens to make it happen," Rocheleau said. "All of that is created, and nine times out of 10, it's created by students."
MONTHS IN THE MAKING
Anna Slocum's mother taught her how to sew when she was a little girl. Originally from Genoa, N.Y., a small town near Ithaca, she came to SUNY Fredonia to study acting. It was in the costume shop during her first semester that she found her calling. She interviewed for the costume design program and got in.
"I spent the last two summers working at the Sante Fe Opera in New Mexico," she said. "My title was stitching and dressing apprentice. So I stitched on the costumes during the day, I worked in the costume shop similar to what happens here every day and then at night I would actually dress the actors. I would work backstage as a wardrobe crew member. I was in charge of some of the big opera stars every so often, I had to bring them tea and make sure they were dressed properly."
Back in December, Slocum was just completing her costume renderings for "Stage Door."
"I've been working on this since Thanksgiving," she said. "I put a lot of hours into it I probably put close to 200 hours just painting and drawing all of the renderings."
For the play about up-and-coming actresses in the 1930s, Slocum did extensive research.
"I kind of picked things to go with the character types that I wanted," she explained. "For example, Terry is a hard worker and doesn't necessarily have a lot of money, so her clothing will not be as nice as, say, Jean's because she's worked her way up. More simple fabrics, colors. And then with the men, the richer guys will have the nice, crisp suits. And then the guys that are maybe not so wealthy, their clothing will reflect that."
She gestures to mannequins swathed in fur and period-appropriate frocks.
"These are pieces here that we've pulled, and items that Dixon and Laurel have bought for me, so I threw these together," she said. "These are just a rough estimate of what they would have worn in that time."
Once the renderings are done, the designer needs approval from the director. Sometimes it takes several attempts before the director is finally pleased and the designer can proceed to the next step. Communication between the director and designer is key lighting design, and many other elements, must be taken into account.
"I got lucky, for the most part. My director, Dr. (James) Ivey, loved pretty much everything," Slocum said. "There are a few things that I have to change and rework."
Six days into March, Slocum has done fittings for some of the male actors. Wearing a necklace adorned with a delicate charm in the shape of scissors, she proudly shows off her progress on the 1930s-style suits, as well as the vintage-style shoes and fabrics she found during the costume design students' trip to New York City over the winter break. She went to the city armed with a plan and found a lot of what she needed there.
"Right now I'm figuring out who's going to wear what and getting the alterations done, picking out trim," Slocum said.
"You've got to work within a budget that's been a whole lot of Anna's experience with this," Walford said. "There's budgeting time and money. It takes time to get something built and to get the fabrics and stuff like that. But sometimes you don't have the time to do that, and you have to work with what we have, and make tweaks to what we have in order to make it work."
The ability to "make it work" is the quintessential skill for a costume designer to possess. When the designer finally sees the finished garment in the stage lighting, the perceived color of a garment could be altered completely and it's back to the drawing board. A scene may be cut from a production at the last minute, and the costumes that the designer worked painstakingly on for days, weeks or months will never have their moment in the spotlight.
"It's like this basic rule of costuming that I always try to explain to these guys: the garment that you spend the most amount of time on spends the least amount of time on stage," Walford said. "It never fails."
DESINGERS TEACHING DESIGNERS
Dixon Reynolds wanted to be an actor.
"I left home at 17 and went to this arts conservatory in North Carolina (North Carolina School of the Arts)," Reynolds said in his slight Southern drawl. "I studied for a year to become an actor. And I was really, really bad."
With a laugh, he explained that it was how he discovered costume design.
"What was great is that costume design is kind of like the research that an actor does with the character analysis," Reynolds said. "You're doing a lot of the same homework as an actor to create the look of a character. It's a cool gig."
After finishing high school, he furthered his studies at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he earned his BFA in costume design, then went on to get his MFA in costume design from Indiana University. After teaching design for thee years at Georgia College and State University, he came to Fredonia in 2008, which he said has been "the perfect fit."
In addition to his work at the college, Reynolds does a lot of professional design work.
He works for The Kavinoky Theater and Irish Classical Theatre Company in Buffalo, among others. Over Thanksgiving break, he designed the costumes for a 1990s-themed TV pilot entitled "Upstate" in Syracuse, which Reynolds said he believes is being shopped around to networks to possibly be picked up.
Doing design professionally in addition to his teaching duties greatly helps inform his instruction, which his students benefit from tremendously.
"All of my mentors did the same," Reynolds said. "And I do it for the same reasons that they did it I want my students to know that in order to survive in this business, they have to be hard workers. I always keep my hand in the game a little bit. There are all sorts of new and innovative things that are happening constantly in theater. Theater is evolving and changing every day so I don't want to talk about that show I designed 20 years ago to a fresh-faced group of kids that want to know what happened last week."
It is also an excellent way for Reynolds to make connections, which will in turn help his students meet other professional designers.
"I didn't know anybody when I first moved here and the Buffalo theater scene has been awesome for me," he said. "They've been so great and open-armed. I've gotten a lot of my students work there who have graduated or are still in school. I'll hire (my students) as stitchers, I'll hire them as assistants, so they get a chance to see what professional theater is like."
Reynolds said his co-worker Walford does the same thing.
"Laurel has gotten countless students jobs at places that she knows," he said. "The costume community is really, really small, so if we know a student is moving to Atlanta or Seattle or whatever, we generally know those people so we can call and say, 'Hey, we've got a student moving your way, can you help them find a job?'"
Walford taught herself how to sew when she was 9 years old. A SUNY Fredonia theater student, she had wanted to do directing and stage management, which she did for awhile, until theater jobs began to dry up. She worked at Studio Arena in Buffalo for a year, ended up in management at Jo-Ann Fabrics, working in Plattsburgh, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and eventually ended up back in Fredonia.
"This job became available, and suddenly it was like, 'I could get back into theater, and still do work with clothing and fabrics and that kind of stuff," Walford said. "I've been here ever since."
Walford often works with Reynolds on outside theater jobs, and does a lot of work over the summer as well. She has worked for the Utah Shakespearean Festival, the Summer Repertory Theatre in Santa Rosa, Calif., and the Chautauqua Theater Company. She and Reynolds both plan to work on Shakespeare in Delaware Park in Buffalo this summer. The duo drove cross-country to California last summer for their theater work together at the Summer Repertory Theatre.
"I had done one year out there and thought he'd enjoy it, so I introduced him to the artistic director out there and he ended up offering him the position," Walford said. "It was great. We had an epic journey across the country. It was kind of a bucket list thing."
Rocheleau has worked in costume design for many years. He has been at SUNY Fredonia for 17 years it is where he earned his undergraduate degree; he obtained his graduate degree at NYU.
"I designed commercially in New York for five years," he said as he worked from a sketch done by Slocum at a table in the costume shop. "(Anna) gave me the fabric swatches here we actually sat down and had a meeting where I costumed it out for her."
The task is similar to his work in New York, where he was employed by costume shop Parsons-Mears. The renowned Manhattan shop is responsible for building Broadway shows, including "Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats."
What Rocheleau loves most about his job at the college is working with students.
"It's wonderful to find a student who doesn't have any skills yet, or has very little skills, and you can just carefully give them the information and let them take it in. And then when they produce something that they wouldn't have been capable of producing beforehand, it's very rewarding."
A GROUP EFFORT
Delegating is a big part of the costume design process. A lot of the grunt work is done by first-year students; all freshmen in the department are required to do a semester in the costume shop. Different roles are given to upperclassman students while other time-intensive work is given to outsiders, called "overhire."
As she prepared for the upcoming fittings, Amanda Moore and Danielle Waterman stopped in to the costume shop Tuesday to work with Slocum on "Stage Door."
Moore was the co-designer for "High Plains Fandango," a play that just completed its run on March 3; she only had four weeks to pull the costumes together. Waterman designed SUNY Fredonia's fall production of "Macbeth."
In their Costume Construction class, Moore and Waterman were each assigned a dress to make for "Stage Door," working from Slocum's renderings. Waterman is also responsible for wigs, hair and makeup. As a freshman, she auditioned for the musical theatre program but didn't get in she decided to go for a BA in theater instead. It was in her sophomore year that she discovered her passion.
"I found my niche here in the costume shop," said Waterman, a soft-spoken blonde senior costume design student. "I love costume design as well, but wigs are more of what I'm good at."
She will be working with Dave Bova on "Stage Door." Bova, who earned his BFA from SUNY Fredonia, is a well-known wig designer and hair and makeup artist, now residing in New York City. He has done work for Cirque du Soleil, designed wigs for the national tour of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," with a very long list of other credits.
"I'm kind of associate designing with Dave," Waterman explained. "We have about 20 wigs that we're using and we're borrowing them from Dave. He has all of his own wigs and he's going to show me how to do the hairstyles on the wigs."
Waterman searched for research images, which Slocum had to approve and Bova will also have to approve for each character. Waterman will have a crew of two to three students to help handle the wigs; she will manage and train.
The designers will also have to discuss hair color, how each wig will coordinate with each actor's facial structure, and how to incorporate the many 1930s-style hats that are planned to be used in the production. They won't get to see the hats with the wigs until days before the show, when big adjustments may have to be made.
The lace-front wigs are handmade of human hair by Bova "very fragile, very expensive," Slocum said - "It takes hours to do them. It can take 40 to 60 hours just to do one."
"Each individual hair is hand-tied into that netting," Walford explained. The process, like a much smaller version of latch-hook rugs, is called "ventilating."
"It's good for style changes during the show, especially quick changes," Waterman said, adding that it's a big time-saver backstage. "(Bova) donated a lot of wigs and a lot of his time to do this. We're very grateful."
The young designers may also get the opportunity to learn from Bova in workshops, getting expert tips on how to style or maintain a wig through the run of the show.
"That's a good skill for us to have, for going out into the real world," Slocum said. "You never know, we might be asked to do that and if you know how to ventilate, you're really valuable."
THE FINAL BOW
There is still much to be done before "Stage Door" opens on April 20. Coming up are several dress rehearsals, after which more alterations will be done.
"I've spent a lot of time on this," Slocum said. "It's really exciting for me to see all of this come together. I can't wait to see everything on stage and see what it looks like overall. We're working with the set designer and the lighting designer, and they're all working really hard as well to try to get their vision to come to life. When all three elements come together, it's always a good feeling."
In addition to working on "Stage Door," the seniors are making their plans for after graduation.
Slocum is waiting to hear back about an internship in New York City, where she would like to relocate; she will start with stitching and work her way up to design. Waterman has applied at the Chautauqua Theater Company and Central City Opera in Colorado for summer jobs so far, and hopes to eventually go to cosmetology school.
"Stage Door" is their final production at SUNY Fredonia, and Slocum is starting to feel wistful about leaving the costume shop, her instructors and fellow students behind.
"It's sad to think that next year, I won't be here anymore I'll be who knows where," she said. "But I'm excited to see what happens next in my life."
"I'm prepared," Slocum said confidently, with a smile. "I'm ready to go."
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