DePaul Theatre School costume technicians and designers transform actors into characters

Margot Bardeen (top) practice costume making during Costume Tech II class. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)
Margot Bardeen practice costume making during Costume Tech II class. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)

Behind the bold accessories, beautiful gowns, tailored suits, extravagant hats, and modern dress costumes is a team of creative and talented students who design and create the costumes for Theatre School productions.

The costume department comprises multiple rooms, with the main workroom filled with so many tables and machines that it could pass for a room from “Project Runway.” Students in the costume department eventually work their way up and design for shows in the Fullerton and Healy theater spaces, both of which present fully produced works.

Courtney Schum, a junior at DePaul majoring in costume design, was the costume designer for the play “Elemeno Pea.” As a costume designer, Schum said she is responsible for communication between the director and the entire design team, including doing image research, rendering and making all of the creative choices to fit the costumes with the context of the performance.

“I have to take on some type of a leadership position with the costume technicians, who are the people who build everything and do all of the technical sewing work,” Schum said. “You have to be able to answer any questions, such as ‘what seams (do I) use here?’ or ‘how much flare do you want there?’”

The process of designing costumes takes an entire six months from the first meeting to the show opening. Schum begins the design process by reading the play cover to cover. Then she creates a costume plot, which involves laying everything for the play out on a big table and dissecting the play scene-by-scene and character-by-character.

“(If a character) rode a bike into the scene, wearing high heels, or they are married, then they will need a bike, high heels, (and) a wedding ring, information like that,” Schum said.

The next step of the design process is to have a design meeting. This is when the director and production team will talk to the costume designer about how they envision this play. Once there is a rough vision Schum creates preliminary sketches and presents them to the director, design team and shop. Based off of their comments, Schum gives a rough budget estimate, and while she wouldn’t give an exact number, she said they are afforded ample funding.

“It’s usually over $1,000. We rarely work with under $1,000,” she said. “Compared to a storefront professional show, which can be around $400, we are pretty luxurious.”

Once the show is in rehearsal, the costumes are created in the shop itself. Actors and actress measurements are taken, and supplies are bought. Over six weeks, the costume department begins to get things in, and fittings take place intermittently.

“Once we are open I can’t do anything,” she said. “You just have to let it fly.”

Costume designers such as Nikki Foster (above) and technicians collaborate with play directors to create costumes that transform actors and compliment plays. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)
Costume designers such as Nikki Foster (above) and technicians collaborate with play directors to create costumes that transform actors and compliment plays. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)

Designers like Schum work hand-in-hand with a costume technician. Alma Lucero Acosta, is a junior costume technology major, and was a costume technician for the play “Metamorphosis.” She said the position requires being “the brains of the building process,” and creating the pieces from scratch.

“Just like how a costume designer works closely with the show’s director to make sure their vision is being reflected in the costumes, I do the same with the designer,” Acosta said.

Acosta collaborates with the designer, advisor and the costume shop manager, and together they dissect the costumes to “get a clear shape of the silhouette the designer is going for, and the fabric I will be working with,” Acosta said.

For “Metamorphosis,” she was the draper and cutter, the highest position in the costume technician world. She takes a rough draft to create a pattern, which is then cut out on muslin and stitched together with no  extras or finishing. This first draft is then fitted to the actress in order to make sure it fits her well for the show.

Once the real fabric is cut Acosta will complete basic stitching, similar to the muslin fabric and fit the piece again. This, she said, is how technicians see if the new alterations on the actress’s bodies are acting correctly with the fabric weight, feel and look.

Then, like actors, they practice.

“Once tech rehearsal starts I sit in the audience and observe my costume in action, looking to see if everything is working and looking the way in which the designer wanted it to be,” she said.

Both the costume designers and costume technician’s main goal is to recreate costumes that the director envisioned for the play. Assisting director, senior Andrew Huber, assists the director and the design team by going through the script and figuring out exactly what is needed for each character, and what they should be wearing.

For “Elemeno Pea,” Huber said the costumes were crucial in order for the audience to understand the character.

“Clothes are a signifier of wealth, and this play is all about those who have wealth and those who don’t,” he said. “The costumes establish this imaginary world we are trying to convey to the audience.”

Acosta said technicians know what fabrics work best with other garments, styles, and looks and sometimes conflict can arise between designers and technicians because they don’t always understand that their sketches and visions of a costume physically are not possible sometimes.

“Since not all designers are trained this way, there is sometimes conflict between what the designer wants and what is physically possible. Not everything that can be rendered onto a paper can be created in real life,” Acosta said. “The demands are sometimes so outrageous that as technicians we know they are not physically possible. But a technician always wants to go above and beyond to maintain true to the designer’s concept, so collaboration is important.”

Acosta says that the best part of being a costume technician is seeing a costume start off as a piece of muslin and paper and transform into a wearable garment that aids an actor in the completion of the character.

“The builds we work on are like our babies; we are there from the very first stages to the very last. We see the projects evolve each day as we pour all of our hard work, long hours, and sometimes blood because of pricked fingers, into the costumes,” Acosta said. “There is a superstition that we believe in the costume shop that says it is good luck to bleed on a costume, as long as the blood is not obvious.”