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Setting the scene

Student Vanessa Brenengen sews a theater costume

Junior theater major Vanessa Brenengen (pictured) was one of nine student costumers who worked on the DU production of Pippin. Photo: Tim Ryan

Anyone who says that appearances don’t matter is lying.

DU theater students can attest, as appearance is particularly important for those who spend time on stage. An actor’s costume can have a dramatic effect on his or her creative process, influencing character development, movement, confidence, timing and comfort in a character’s skin. To be effective, costume pieces must be incorporated into a production as soon as possible.

“Once a show is cast, we get the actors in shoes that are appropriate for that character in that specific time period so they get used to moving in them,” says Tricia Stevens, DU’s resident costume designer and theater manager. “It’s not always easy, particularly when you have to put a guy in high heels for the first time.”

For the past 10 years, Stevens has costumed virtually every DU theater production — three shows per year — with the help of several student costumers. DU’s March production of Pippin employed a crew of nine students who, along with costume shop manager Laurie Klapperich, transformed Stevens’ designs into reality.

“Students assist with whatever their skills allow them to do,” says Stevens, an adjunct professor who teaches Costume Design I & II, Stage Make-up and Stage Management. “In the fundamental stages of skill building, students learn to hem, apply buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, and such. They’ll likely work on all the garments for a show. As their skills progress, however, it’s common for one student to work on one garment from beginning to end.

“I’ve had students who come to me not knowing how to sew and leave knowing how to make corsets,” Stevens adds. “That makes me very proud. My job is to make them employable.”

One way she accomplishes this is by giving students plenty of hands-on experience. Shoes aside, every cast member in any given production requires at least five major costume pieces, including pants or a skirt, a shirt or bodice, undergarments and sometimes layers of petticoats, depending on the show. For Henry VI Part III, DU’s 2005 fall production, student costumers also had to contend with rigging and sheaths for weapons, various forms of headwear, gloves, knee and elbow pads, and copious amounts of fake blood.

The key to being a marketable costume designer is unlocking one’s imagination, says Stevens, whose first foray into theater was as a performer. “I teach students that a willingness to play is crucial,” she says. “I also teach them that the design they fall in love with is usually the one they’ll have to throw away because they’ll end up designing everything else around that one concept.”

With so much being thrown at them, aspiring designers do well to learn other aspects of production. Colin Roybal, BA theater and English ’06, worked on the costume crew for Henry VI Part III, took on a role in Pippin and served as master electrician for that show. “I’ve realized that acting isn’t my only strength,” Roybal says. “I’ve developed a great knack for technical design, specifically in lighting, set design and costume design.

“The broader education I’ve received at DU about all areas of theater has given me the tools I need to be more marketable to theater companies in the future.”


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