Aug. 7, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Theatre majors weave history into costume design
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Like an actress who immerses herself in her character when preparing for a role, the costume designer must consider every aspect of the character. The successful designer operates as a historian - researching the socioeconomic structure of a society, etiquette and customs relating to dress, fabrics and audience awareness.
Few understand this as well as Slippery Rock University theatre majors Kelly Myers of Natrona Heights and Maya Ogasawara of Japan, who are participating in a student-faculty research project with Rebecca Morrice, assistant professor of theatre.
The costume designers researched clothing worn during vastly different time periods - the Victorian 1890s and the "rocker" 1960s - to design costumes for recent performances. Their costumes appeared in SRU-student productions of Henrik Isben's "Hedda Gabler" and Shakespeare's "Cymbeline."
"The research for Hedda Gabler helped me further my costuming skills by not only making me more knowledgeable of 1890s dress, but also learning how to take the historically accurate fashion and adapt it for a modern audience," Myers said.
Myers said she researched the 1890s on the Internet and through books to learn subtle details about the culture and dress of the period. She jokes that she can now include "basic corset making" as a special skill on her resume. She also learned that a man's tuxedo was considered scandalous in conservative circles when it first appeared in the 1890s because it featured a short jacket instead of tails.
"Through the different images and articles I have found in my research for my designs, I learned a lot about how intense rules for proper etiquette and dress were more than a century ago," Myers said. "Professor Morrice also gave me the opportunity to learn how to build a late 19th century gown from scratch, along with the under garments."
While her 15 costumes for Hedda Gabler were historically accurate, Morrice gave her the freedom to add personal touches, called anachronisms, an alteration that helps the modern audience understand the characters in a show.
For instance, Myers designed a costume with a tight collar for "Hedda Gabler." The collar symbolized the oppressiveness of Victorian society. "I portrayed her trapped and desperate personal situation through her neckline and chose to visually show her feeling of being strangled in this lifestyle through her tight and restricted collars," she said.
Myers, a junior, said she hopes to do costume design for theatre and film after she graduates in 2011. She also enjoys theatre make up and learned to dabble in fake crepe hair and mutton shops for "Hedda Gabler."
"Our theatre department is amazing," she said. "The amount of opportunity the faculty gives is so beneficial to a student aspiring to make a living in this difficult and competitive field. I also really appreciate the artistic freedom they give students in regard to design. Though they help us when needed, they don't try to dictate the right way to do something, but they let us figure it out for ourselves. I always feel at home when I walk into Miller Auditorium."
SRU's production of "Cymbeline" was highly anachronistic, Ogasawara said. David Skeele, professor of theatre, asked her to design costumes that mixed "romantic European" from the 1850s with 1960s rock 'n' roll to create an updated version of Shakespeare's play.
"I wanted to show how I dealt with the anachronistic approach to the play without disengaging the audience," Ogasawara said.
She designed 30 costumes and planned to present her research during SRU's research symposium that continues today in the University Union. Ogasawara said she wants more people to understand the depth of costume design.
"Often it is misinterpreted by people that we simply build costumes," she said. "Of course we do build costumes, but before that, it takes enormous research, collaboration with other designers, directors and actors. The process can be very complicated."
Ogasawara described the research as invaluable. "I learned how to design many costumes and unify it at the same time," she said. "I have learned how to be creative and to understand audience perspective to the design."
Ogasawara said she hopes to become a costume designer and feels ready after working with Morrice and others in theatre. "I love my department because I have great colleagues and faculty members who are very kind and helpful," she said. "Everybody is open minded, and I am glad to be in this department."
Morrice said Ogasawara did a great artistic job of blending time periods. "Like a lot of departments, we don't prefer to do Shakespeare in Shakespearian clothing," Morrice said "If you're trying to get the audience to empathize with your character, you don't want to put them in pumpkin hose and tights. We wanted to try to update it in terms of costume."
Morrice said the key component of the research is that students learn to branch out and be more creative with their costume design.
"It's easy to go and look at pictures and then copy what you see," she said. "The research gives them the idea that they can re-adapt a costume and think outside the box and to think freely as an artist. That is the challenge."
The research experience will give them a credential and more confidence in their careers. "They need to not be afraid of accepting a challenge," she said.
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