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The Seamless Talent Of Indiana University’s Costume Studio

WFIU's Megan Meyer stepped inside the Indiana University Costume Studio for a conversation with the shop's director, Linda Pisano.

WFIU’s Megan Meyer stepped inside the Indiana University Costume Studio for a conversation with the shop’s director, Linda Pisano.

MM: Linda Pisano heads Indiana University’s Costume Design Program. Working with the directors of theater productions, she and a crew of needle-wizards design the clothes that help transform actors into heroes, villains, and jesters.

LP: The director is the final visionary, I always call them – I always laugh about this -I always call them the captain of the ship and we are the navigators.

MM: And like captains, directors can only get so far all alone.

LP: Say a character has to walk on stage, he has to walk on stage and have a big impact, well, the director does everything they can. They bring them there – upstage, center, and come right down center stage. And that’s what the director can do to create a really big impact for that actor’s entrance. Well, my job is to then is to have the costume help them make that impact really, really important.

MM: After meeting with the director, they make “renderings” – those are sketches they draw of each character in their costumes. These rendering get pretty specific. The ones Linda showed me included so many details – jewelry, shoes, hairstyles, make-up.

MM: Sometimes it’s the easily over-looked details that really help give a scene its spark.

LP: And so to enhance the moment, the dramatic moment, he’s able to take a pair of gloves off. So as he takes each finger … out of his gloves … he says a line. And suddenly it has so much more impact. It’s very dramatic, whether it’s dramatic or comic, I don’t know. But that’s the way a costume can suddenly enhance a moment. 23s

MM: But the folks in the Costume Studio also have to make sure the actors can even get from one dramatic moment to the next. Some costume changes between scenes can last only a few seconds.

LP: And then the technologists in the Costume Studio have to quick-rig things. You know-Velcro and snaps! So you may see someone in a beautiful, beautiful period gown that looks like it would take three servants to put on, when, in fact, it might have a Velcro closure down the back because she has a thirty second change. 21s

MM: That said, these guys don’t skimp on quality. One woman takes me aside to tell me so.

WD: My name is Wallayad [sic] Dimner, honey, Wally.

WD: And then, nobody can pronounce it, so they pronounce it Wally.

MM: Wally is sewing a pair of pin-striped slacks.

WD: Everything is hand-stitched.  Because…quality.

MM: Not only does the Costume Studio design for Indiana University, but also for Brown County’s month-long productions. Wally says that’s why these costumes have to be well-made – they have to last. And for good workmanship, you have to put in time.

WD: Nobody realize that the costumes take a lot of time. Like some dresses can take you like three full weeks, just one dress.

MM: The care and attention they give to the costumes can bring about some pretty creative stuff – like when Linda and her co-workers were designing the perfect suit for The Cat in the Hat.

LP: It was determined that he would have a tailored black tailcoat as part of his character. And we were trying to humanize it – we didn’t want to abstract that into the cat animal, but we wanted to emulate the quality of that. And we wanted to give the actor many, many options for movement to emulate the quality of a cat.

MM: OK…that means no whiskers, no ears, no claws . So they had to take cues from believable human dress, and alter it.

LP: So, in designing that, instead of traditional tails that you would find on a black tuxedo tailcoat, we turned it into a literal one tail – like a cat’s tail. And that’s where Lara came in and figured out well, how do you construct a tailcoat with a tail.

MM: Lara Southerland Berich is the Costume Studio’s Cutter/Draper. She sees the renderings, and works with different fabrics to make it happen.

LP:  So she’s cutting this out she’s draping it on a form. She’s doing whatever she needs to do to create this interesting tail. So we created this tail that curved around and around – and it was a red and white striped lining in it – because those are the colors of his character.

MM: There’s a lot of careful study that goes on in the Costume Studio.  Linda says a lot of research is needed to satisfy audience members’ keen eyes .

LP: They understand a basic silhouette. They may not know, but they have some visual history in their own mind.

MM: She reminds me that each one of us has created pictures in our minds of, say post-WWII, from paintings, movies, photographs, and sculptures we have seen.

LP: What you don’t want to do as a designer, or as a technologist, is ever have the audience distracted by poor costuming, because once they are distracted by poor costuming, they’re drawn out of the magic of the production, or of the story. They become detached.

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer is an online and radio producer for WFIU's Arts Bureau and local food program Earth Eats. Megan grew up in South Dakota and later lived in France for 3 years. She was an intern for NPR's Science Desk in the spring of 2009, and joined WFIU in June 2009.

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