Dean's Research Grant: Professor Arnold and Student Notestine

Costume design brings together art, craft, anthropology, and psychology. By working closely with the director, the costume designer makes choices that capture the essence of the character and designs specifically for the actor playing the part.

Seattle Repertory Theatre was co-producing the play Venus in Fur with the Arizona Theatre Company. When Theatre Professor Harmony Arnold was asked to design the costumes, she applied for a Dean’s Research Grant, and Michael Notestine ’15 was given the opportunity to work directly with one of the nation’s leading regional theatre companies.

A professor of costume history, costume design, and production practicum, Arnold is also the university’s resident costume designer and costume shop manager. At large regional theatres like the Seattle Repertory Theatre, costume shop personnel are divided into specific roles ranging from design assistant to head of wardrobe. One person or a team of people tackle a specific area within the costume shop. At Seattle University, these roles are often combined, giving students a variety of experiences within the costume shop. The contrast was eye-opening for Notestine as he noticed that this model applied to the whole operation of the theatre.

“In rehearsal in the university setting, we fulfill the role we signed up to do, but we are also learning how to design the lights or block a scene or see what it looks like for a director,” he said. “At Seattle Rep, individuals fill a particular role, and I could observe a collaborative relationship among a group of artists coming together, each bringing what they’d spent their entire lives training to do.”

Venus in Fur premiered in New York City in 2010 and received two Tony award nominations. Based on an 1870 novel, the play features a male playwright and a female actor auditioning for a part.

“The role of Vanda is very physical,” Arnold said. “Not only do the costumes have to stand up to the wear and tear of numerous costume changes, but in our case, Venus in Fur was headed to subsequent full runs in Tucson and Phoenix. The costumes had to withstand performances in three cities and travel well.”

Arnold and Notestine traveled to Portland to visit fabric houses. Fabrics were chosen, patterns created, actors fitted, cotton samples made, actors refitted, and final costumes sewn.

“Michael followed me through the entire process until opening night--through fittings and through tech rehearsals where we sat together for hours and weeks,” Arnold said.

Arnold, who has worked as a costume designer in theatre, film, and commercial venues, enjoys collaborating with students and giving them experiences that open doors to their future careers. Notestine certainly agrees.

“Here they nurture us to have a safe space to learn and grown and succeed in our university setting, but they also want us to get out and experience the greater community,” he said. “There’s no better way to learn than to be in a room and watch and work with professionals from around the country. Being able to say I worked at a regional theatre that took on a play like ‘Venus in Fur’ is great for someone my age. I loved every bit of it.”

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Published June 2014