Students learn to design, sew costumes for theatre

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Kevin Ellis did not think he would be interested in costume design. It wasn’t until he took the principles of stage design class in the Theatre Department that that happened.

“I considered myself as an actor and technician,” said Ellis, a senior theatre major.

Ellis said professor Garry Lennon inspired and encouraged him to design costumes for plays at CSUN.

At the end of the course, Lennon approached Ellis and told him he had an option to create set designs for the campus production of “Nickel ‘ Dimed” or the costumes for Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Ellis chose the latter.

“Costume design came to me easier than set designing,” Ellis said.

“Twelfth Night” will be the first play that Ellis will create costumes for. He had to research the era and style the director of the play, Melissa Chalsma, wanted to convey.

“It’s a little intimidating,” Ellis said. “With my last school project, it was less intimidating, because it was not a production.”

The main project for the principles of stage design course requires that students read a play and create the costumes, and a set design for it.

“We create drawings of the costumes and make a small stage mock-up,” Ellis said.

Maro Parian runs a small costume shop located on the first floor of Nordhoff Hall. The shop serves as a lab space for beginning costuming and intermediate costume technology courses.

Parian has been with the Theatre Department for five years, and she said she enjoys working with students.

“(It’s great) spending time one-on-one with students and encouraging them,” Parian said. “A lot of them don’t know they have it in them.”

The beginning costuming course is required of all theatre majors. The course teaches basic sewing, as well as a variety of other sewing techniques. Students are taught how to run a play. They also learn how to make wardrobe.

“Students need to understand every aspect of theater in an academic environment,” Parian said.

Students who are enrolled in the class put in 60 hours of work in the costume shop.

John Binkley, professor of set design in the Theatre Department, described the two aspects of costume design.

“There needs to be a preparation before what happens in the production,” Binkley said.”Then there is the technical area, which is maintenance of the garments.”

The costume shop has about 11 German sewing machines, 10 dress-forms that are used to fit costumes, and two cutting tables that are desks for a designer to create patterns.

“We’re trying to mirror what’s happening in the professional world,” said Lennon, professor of costume design and advanced makeup in the department. “The students that discover the technical area have a better chance to succeed.”

Paula Lampshire, senior CTVA major, is Parian’s student assistant who works in the shop and produces costumes.

“We have diverse eras and patterns of costume,” Lampshire said. The department has a storage room called the “period room” where various costumes are stored according to the period or style of the costume.

Binkley, who has been teaching at CSUN for four years, said each show has its own budget and is typically minimal.

“(Plays) are student-executed and serve the student community,” said Lennon, who’s been with the department for six years.

The clothing designer purchases fabric and items needed to create the costumes, according to Lampshire.

“The clothing designer will go out and buy whatever (he or she) can find from anywhere,” Lampshire said.

Lennon added that most of the fabric is bought from theformerly named the Garment District, in Downtown Los Angeles.

Binkley said a lot of actors want to keep what they have worn for a play, but items made with the fabric bought by a clothing designer are not for sale.

Parian and Lampshire recounted the time when a retired woman donated more than $17,000 in opera costumes to the Theatre Department.

“I just answered the phone, and (the woman) said, ‘Would you like these clothes?'” Lampshire said.

According to Parian, anything that is vintage is packed away and kept as reference for costume designing. Ellis feels that the costume shop is beneficial to theatre students and prepares them for the future.

“I think they do a good job in exposing students to the technique (of costume design).”

Ellis said one thing in particular fascinates him about costume design.

“It’s the ability to see something come alive after you read it. The ability of incorporating personality traits, and what you think people should dress like,” Ellis said.

Ellis will appear in the Theatre Department’s production of “Dancing at Lughnasa” at the end of Oct. 2005.

Cynthia Ramos can be reached at cynthia.ramos.838@csun.edu.