Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up and where did you go to school?
I was born in the Milwaukee area, and then moved to Eagle, Wisc. I went to a small high school and am a Lawrence alumnus. I had a double [degree] — studio art and piano performance. I figured when I got out of school, I would choose one of those two areas. What I realized when I got out of school — I worked as a curator at the Milwaukee Art Institute — I realized that I did not like being in an all-art-related field, just visual arts.
The next year I did musical direction in theater. I didn’t really like just doing the music end of it. I realized that theater incorporated everything and I had done costume design outside of Lawrence. I could use my art and theater, I loved the history of costume design. I started doing that more specifically when I moved out to the West coast to live in San Francisco with my husband. He was getting a master’s at American Conservatory of Theater. I started working in the costume shop as a design assistant.
What drew you to teaching?
I worked at American Conservatory of Theater for a few years as a resident designer. After that, I lived in Chicago and only freelanced. I knew the head of the costume design program at DePaul. She thought that I might enjoy teaching a class there, and so she had me teach her senior costume design majors as a work-in professional. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I found that it was very fun to teach the students but I learned just as much from them as they did from me.
It inspired me a lot for my jobs. I started thinking in a different way. Oftentimes, I would work with interns — I really enjoyed the energy of the students I taught. I worked at DePaul for a number of years. I also taught at Northwestern; when I moved to Milwaukee, I taught at Carroll University for a year. It was all as adjunct faculty. I wasn’t ready to give up free-lance designing.
What was it like to start up a new costume design program at Lawrence?
It was very exciting to start a new program from scratch. I had a general idea how the curriculum worked. I had a general idea how Lawrence did things. It was exciting to come in and figure out what would work best for Lawrence and for me, and for the students. I have to say, for the 14 years that it was student-run, the students did a great job of organizing things. The shop was well supplied and the students had risen to that level to get the shop at a place where shows could be costumed. The program just started this fall.
Have there ever been “wardrobe malfunctions” or anything unexpected that happened with your costume designing? What are the greatest challenges in being a costume designer?
Dress rehearsal story: I was doing a show that took place from 1950-1978, in which all of the actors get older as the play goes on, and must wear clothing according to the decade in which the scene took place. One actor was an older actor and was afraid of the quick changes. He started panicking and disappeared for a while.
My dresser said, “I can’t find Al.” I’m looking for him and can’t find him. We started the dress rehearsal. When he made his entrance on stage, he looked 20 pounds heavier than he should. The director said, “Al, you look really strange.” We eventually figured out that in order to facilitate costume changes, Al had worn all five of his costumes on at the same time!
What was it like to work on the set of a movie? With whom do you interact when you are a residential costume designer?
It’s pretty exciting. It ends up being your whole life. Your job is basically looking for your next job. You’re constantly interviewing and showing your portfolio and making contacts. When you make the job, you immerse yourself in research and rendering costumes. Spend a lot of time at that theater. Living outside of a suitcase — very exciting. Lawrence was a great foundation, but I’ve learned so much about history, psychology and anthropology from the research I’ve had to do.
We did an adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five. On opening night I had dinner with Kurt Vonnegut. He was going to see how I interpreted his novel. I asked him about a crazy character that was in the prisoners of war camp that dressed like a superhero. He wrote about it in his novel in great detail: a blue leotard with a big letter, cape, cowboy hat. Where had he gotten the image?
“I have no recollection of ever writing that.”
It was shocking that he didn’t quite know what to think of it.
From where do you get your inspiration? What costume designers do you look up to? Why?
No specific designers. It’s trite, but I like to look at fashion magazines. Quite often their photo shoots will be very imaginative and make me think in a different way. When doing a period show, I try to find something a contemporary audience might relate to. It’s nice to find something in vogue/street fashion, try to infuse that fashion into period costumes. When I do a contemporary show, I try to put period influences into it, so my characters are not one-dimensional.
What do you do in your free time?
I like to research different periods in history. I go to thrift stores/vintage stores/junk stores. It seems like an odd thing to do, but I love to look at things from the past, specifically clothing. I love to see theater. I have two children, a daughter and a son. Right now, I’m exploring classic movies with my daughter. My son is interested in becoming a magician.