While most people will only see what’s on stage when they go to watch a play, there is a large amount of work being done behind the curtains to ensure audience members have a phenomenal theatergoing experience. The costuming department is just one small cog in a much larger production machine.
Costuming for a production takes many steps, and costume shop supervisor and senior lecturer Stacia Smith-Alexander emphasized the importance of all a play’s elements coming together to form one seamless “composition.”
"Once everything is together on stage, you have made a picture, even though it's a lot of people, it's lights and sounds and set as well. So there's way more components to creating a theater picture than there is to, like, a painting," Smith-Alexander said.
Eden Resnik, a senior studying design and technology for performance with a focus in costume design, said one can experiment with costume design and make an impact, even if the audience may not notice it.
“Even when you might think that there's not really costume design, if they're just in something very simple, it still has an effect,” Resnik said. "You could have a show where everybody's walking around and there's some interesting sound techniques and it's kind of experimental. If they're all in white dresses, that'll have a different feeling to if they're all in very strange, bright colors with funny crowns."
Resnik found that costumes have as much of an impact on actors as they do on an audience's experience.
"(Costume design is) largely a visual medium for the audience. It does influence the characters a lot. But I think also for the actors and performers, it has a big influence, because acting in just whatever you're wearing is one thing, but once you have the costume on, it's, I think, a lot easier for them to transition into that (character's) headspace," Resnik said.
UNM designers have not let the COVID-19 pandemic keep them from creating costumes for shows and finding ways to incorporate the indoor-required masks.
"Last semester, we were able to use some different prints and things like that because we could do fabric, but now we have to do the surgical masks so we have found some ones that have prints on them on Amazon," Smith-Alexander said. "We are talking about having different designs and fabric over the surgical masks, but, if I was an actor, I would not be very happy with that. It's going to be really hard to project and talk."
Dorothy Baca, senior lecturer and UNM alumna, witnessed how the department has grown from her time as a student to now as a professor.
"When I was an undergrad, everyone got the same Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). It was a general theater degree; everyone acted, crewed, designed. We all took the same classes," Baca wrote to the Daily Lobo via email. "Now (that) we have a BFA with a focus in costume design and technology, the emphasis in costuming better prepares students to get into graduate school, apprenticeships or work professionally."
Smith-Alexander has helped in her own ways to grow the department after seeing some of the challenges the department has faced, including lack of proper resources and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“Every time there is a little bit of money available, I have invested in our equipment over the years. So when I was first here and in school, there were mostly all-home sewing machines in the costume shop,” Smith-Alexander said. “Over the years, I've been able to purchase industrial grade sewing machines that are more of things the Santa Fe Opera would have (or) like a professional costume shop would have.”
While UNM's costume department may not have a graduate program, this makes it preferable to undergraduate students like Resnik who enjoy the experience of a smaller program.
"When I was looking at different schools, it's not super common that the undergrads can be designing pretty large scale shows themselves because, often, they'll have graduate students do that," Resnik said. "At UNM, pretty early on you can get involved and have a fair amount of responsibility.”
Baca sees the UNM costume design program as an invaluable hands-on experience preparing them for working on productions outside of school.
"(The program) takes the students through the complex process of putting up a production. The students leave here with a portfolio, experience in presenting their design concepts and confidence in what they know," Baca wrote. "Students work on every aspect of costuming, which gives them technical skills they need if they go to work in a professional environment."
Elizabeth Secor is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @esecor2003