Turning sketches into styles

Michaela Petrovich has spent months researching a play and clothing styles from the 1990s. Now, she is putting pen to paper to create the designs that will become the costumes for the play “Pentecost.”

Petrovich is one of two students of her year in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) costume design program. She is designing costumes for the 1994 drama, which will begin production in January or February.

For Petrovich, the design process for a complex show like “Pentecost” doesn’t start with her scribbling lines and figures on a piece of paper.

Rather, it entails reading through the play a few times to process the play and think about how it makes her feel. Then she reads through it several more times, paying specific attention to things like the setting of the play: its location, what the weather is like.

Petrovich then consults the director, set designer, and lighting designer along the way. She also looks for inspiration in sculptures, paintings, magazines, books, and the like.

“For ‘Pentecost,’ I found a whole big stack of National Geographics from the early ’90s, and so many of the portraits really spoke to me in a way that I wasn’t finding elsewhere,” Petrovich said. “[My inspiration] can come from a magazine, a book. It can come from, you know, just walking around, looking at people on the bus.”

It is only after Petrovich wrestles with the nuances of the play and garners inspiration for the characters’ wardrobes that she begins sketching designs for the play.

In addition to designing costumes, Petrovich takes classes, works as a TA for an introduction to costume class, and will be designing costumes for two shows this year.

In the UW School of Drama costume shop, Petrovich’s designs for these productions come to life.

The costume shop, which dates back to 1935, serves as a classroom and workspace for costume design students, a home to an extensive collection of donated, designed, and borrowed costumes, and a learning space for UW Costume Club members.

In only a year, the Costume Club has grown from 15 to nearly 60 members. Club members use the costume shop to learn how to sew and create costumes, such as those used for cosplay.

“I really love that the Costume Club has developed so fruitfully,” said Deb Skorstad, lead costumer and Costume Club adviser. “They’re self-governing, and they’re very active. That’s the most exciting part — to watch young people who are really committed to learning the technical skills.”

Aside from servicing an active costume club, the costume shop is a work space for graduate students in the MFA costume design program.

Here, with the help of in-house professional seamstresses, the students’ designs are turned into costumes. The building process requires sewing, fittings, crafting accessories, and sometimes even redesigning costumes to be more practical and functional. The process — a game of creating and recreating, of sewing hemlines and adding trim last-minute to make a dress pop ­­— can take up to six weeks, according to Petrovich.

“One of their greatest gifts of coming in to grad school is having a full professional shop, where they can realize their designs,” costume-design senior lecturer Deb Trout said.

Allison Panzarella, the other second-year costume design student, is currently taking classes and designing for “Landscape of the Body.” The 1970s play about decapitation, Panzarella said, is a story about “the intricate sparkle of a person.”

To prepare for “Landscape of the Body,” and to accurately capture the East Coast-essence, ’70s-feel of the play, Panzarella conducted extensive research prior to sketching designs. This required reading through the play several times to understand the mood and tonality of the story and its characters.

Panzarella also found herself delving into the minutiae of the decade’s fashion. Commercials, films, yearbooks, and even mug shots were points of reference and inspiration throughout the process.

Panzarella also met with the director, set designer, lighting designer, and actors to get their feedback and discuss their visions of the play.

“As we’re sitting down and looking at what [the actors are] wearing and what I’ve chosen for their wardrobe for their character, they’ll say ‘Oh, that’s really good. How about having a utility belt?’ or ‘She wouldn’t wear that,’” Panzarella said. “They know [the character], so I think that’s the beauty of working in collaboration with the actors and directors. Everyone’s involved.”

Panzarella, who has completed her paper designs, is now working with seamstresses Skorstad and Val Mayse to realize the designs.

Throughout the design process, Mayse, Skorstad, and costume shop supervisor Josie Gardner provide support to students.

“The function here is to train the grad students to deal with the professional people they will have to work with [in the future],” costume specialist Mayse said.

The professional staff help students learn to communicate their ideas, consider their budgets, and ultimately realize their designs. For this, the students are immensely grateful, Petrovich and Panzarella said.

“They just have so much knowledge, and they’re there to back you up no matter what,” Petrovich said. “It’s a really great environment to work in. Everybody is extraordinarily supportive of each other and of the work.”

In recent years, the costume shop and the MFA program have felt the effects of the economic downturn. The shop used to service 13 productions per year. Since the recession, the number of productions has gone down to only four per year.

Inflated prices of fabrics, steel, wood, and other materials have also significantly affected the shop.

“We’re doing smaller shows with less money because of the recession,” Mayse said. “The professors are working very hard to make sure the students still get a good education.”

Also as a result of the recession, the MFA program is no longer able to accept students every year. The three-year program used to accept two new students every year, but now, they can only support four students total in the program at one time.

“I think it would be great if we went back to our original,” Trout said. “It was a big loss when the budget crashed, and we really had to cut back by a third on our student population in the graduate program.”

Reach reporter Ann Huynh at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AnnThuy

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