Beginning Fall 2014 the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance will offer an M.F.A. in Costume Technology. Heather Milam, the program’s director, most recently served as the Costume Production Specialist for the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance. She has worked for over a decade as a professional costume-maker, cutter/draper,* and pattern-maker in New York City and at other regional and professional theatres across the country. She and I sat down to talk about her work and what the new degree has to offer. —Sarah Campbell
Sarah: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to costume technology.
Heather: I have been doing theatre since I was in 6th grade. Back then it was just crossing the stage and being in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. But from high school on I realized I was more of a backstage person. I did stage management, too. I went to undergrad at Ithaca College thinking I wanted to be a director. And the reason I thought that was because when I read a play, I saw it produced in my head. So I thought that meant that I was director-minded. But it turns out that you can use those same visual skills in any field in the theatre.
There was an opening for work study in the costume shop. I had gotten my first sewing machine when I was 13 and had the basic sewing skills, so I figured that was better than flipping burgers in the food court. I took the job and realized that it was something that I really enjoyed doing, that costume design and construction were the area of theatre that I wanted to pursue. At that time at Ithaca they required you to do summer theatre every year, so I started doing summer internships, which led to other jobs. In between my junior and senior year I interned at Barbara Matera Limited, which at the time was the top costume shop in New York City. It was an amazing, life-changing experience for me. They offered me a full-time job once I graduated, so I moved to New York and started working there. I worked there on and off for 12 years—I worked on Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Sunset Boulevard, most of what Broadway was producing from the mid-90s to the 2000s, and I learned from some of the best designers in the industry. I moved up the ranks, as you do in the costume shop. I moved to Phoenix for a little while, did some cutting and draping at the Phoenix Theatre Company. I came back to New York City and did some freelance work there. After that I went into academia. I worked at the University of Alabama for four years and then I got this opportunity.
Sarah: So, what is costume technology?
Heather: It is all of the processes that go into realizing a costume design. So the building of garments, the making of the costume pieces, dressmaking, tailoring, crafts, and millinery.
Sarah: How do you work with the costume designer?
Heather: The costume designer works closest with the director and the other members of the design team, like the set designer or the lighting designer. The costume-maker works, primarily, with the costume designer and then the people who actually make the costumes, which would be the stitchers and others in the costume shop. The designer kind of imagines or creates the idea of what each of the characters will be wearing—or even the functionality, what do they need to be wearing? Also, what they need for the show to indicate different seasons, times of day, or classes, all of that comes from the designer and their research. Then they present their drawings to a draper or a costume-maker and then the costume-maker works with the designer to figure out how it’s going to be built. There are always instances of dealing with how the costume is going to be constructed, whether it needs to be functional in terms of working with a quick change; where holes are going to be, if it needs to fit over other costumes, if it needs to happen really fast, if it needs to be of a certain material. So you work out samples first, that’s often what the first step will be—coming up with a variety of ideas of what the costume will be made of. You collaborate continuously with the designer; that’s really who you work the closest with. Once the designer is satisfied with your proposal, you’ll move forward and work with the shop to build the costume.
Sarah: What is the goal of this program? What do you hope to train students for?
Heather: Well giving the students skills that will allow them to function in a costume shop—that is the primary goal. My specialty is dressmaking and tailoring so that will be, at least in the beginning, the focus of classwork. I worked in a costume shop for many years in New York, and that’s where a lot of my connections still are, but I would like to prepare costume technicians to be able to function in the role of draper, or pattern maker/first hand** out in New York or LA costume shops, regional theatre shops, or Shakespeare companies around the world.
Sarah: How will the students be working in the department and on productions? I know M.F.A. design students work as a designers in IU Theatre productions. What kind of responsibility will costume technology students take on for the productions?
Heather: They will complete their graduate assistant hours in the costume shop working as drapers or first hands. They probably will begin to work on one of the smaller shows or overseeing the alterations for one of the shows that don’t have that many costumes or costumes which aren’t especially complicated. Also for one of the other productions that semester, they would be a first hand to me or for maybe a third-year student. They may not be in charge of how a costume is made, but they are in charge of the stitchers or the other students working in the shop, and they will oversee how that process occurs.
Then they would move up in terms of responsibility to a harder show or a different time period or a different challenge. That’s part of the goal of overseeing the students, that they leave here will all of the necessary skills, whether it’s working in period pattern-making or tailoring, or big builds like a 20-person chorus who all have to be wearing the same thing. I would foresee them having a thesis project that would be similar to the design students—meaning they would do research on different construction methods and innovative technologies in terms of costume production. I would like them to be research-minded as well. I would like them to explore new innovations, materials, and technique, so they can present at conferences. One of the things I would like to see by their third year is that they have done independent research and presented it at a conference like USITT or SETC, and also work on a production where they would be completely in charge of the construction and alterations.
Sarah: Are there other programs like this in the US?
Heather: There are about eight programs that are specific to costume technology. There are a lot of programs that are a dual focus in costume design and technology, probably two or three dozen. The program at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is probably the program that I’ve most modeled my ideas. The person who founded that program, Judy Adamson, was someone I worked with when I was very young when I was in New York, and I saw her transition and build that program from the ground up. Right now that school probably puts out some of the best technologists. But from any of the M.F.A. programs we know— if they’ve gone through three years of intensive training, you can depend on their skill level.
Sarah: What courses are you offering? What do you foresee offering in the future?
Heather: There will be courses in pattern-making, draping, tailoring, period construction, and understructures—like corsets and bustles. They will need to take costume history, the theory/history/literature requirements, and research and collaboration courses along with the other tech/design students. We will offer some special topics courses—these will be offered sporadically depending on the needs or desires of the students. Linda Pisano offers some classes like mask-making and millinery, so if the students are interested in those, they’d obviously be welcome to take those classes. They’d need to take at least one design class, so they understand the language and have the ability to communicate with designers. We are still working on a specific curriculum, but that’s the general idea.
Sarah: What are you the most excited about in launching the program?
Heather: I’m excited to be in a position to train masters of their craft. In our program you will be coming in for three years and 63 credits of costume technology, where your summers are focused at an internship or working with specialists. You’re specifically coming here because you want to master this craft. In the “olden days” this was an apprenticeship field, where tailors start learning to hand sew at the age of five, where they learned from their fathers and brothers and uncles. The apprentices were learning a trade they would be doing for their whole life; they were trained for decades to become really good at what they do. That’s not the environment here in America now, but this is the closest you can get to that model, where you’re working with someone who will allow you to truly specialize in an art.
*Cutter/draper is responsible for the creation of costumes; interpretation of original design work and custom patterning based on the design, and all facets of the construction process for the costumes as well as alterations, fittings, and maintenance of pulled or rented clothing items.
**First hand = the draper’s assistant, working with the draper to construct the costumes. First hands cut the fabric and distribute the work to the stitchers.