From Sketchbook to Stage: A stitch of advice from NU’s finest costumers

Sammy Caiola, Reporter

Turning one man into three women is tricky math, but Melanie Vitaterna greets the challenge needle in hand.

The Communication junior is currently costume designing for “The 39 Steps,” an Arts Alliance production in which one male actor plays a German spy, a British ingenue and a Scottish wife throughout the course of the show. Vitaterna is responsible, through the cunning use of wigs and petticoats, for making these characters unrecognizable from one another (but just barely).

Vitaterna is one of a small group of Northwestern students in the business of playing dress-up on a regular basis.

As a costume designer, Vitaterna must devise and execute costumes for entire ensembles of student productions, collecting or creating clothing that is “of a different aesthetic, as if people with different personalities chose their own wardrobes,” she said. Her costumes will appear onstage in McCormick Auditorium this weekend.

“Know the cast before you design, know the actors,” Vitaterna said. “I really want to be inspired by the character in the script but also the actor who’s going to embody that character. I want to find something that’s going to look really beautiful on his or her body.”

Costume designing for stage is a long process, one that starts with pencil and paper and a lot of brainpower. Weinberg freshman designer Beatrice Hagney, who is currently working on the Purple Crayon Players’ production of “With Two Wings,” said she begins by sitting with the script for a few days before drawing up preliminary designs to show the directors. Once the sketches are approved in a production meeting, the designer can move on to secondary or final drafts.

Hagney, a political science major and STITCH magazine stylist, said the key to designing is seeing it through the right lens, taking into account period, setting and audience.

“’With Two Wings’ is a kid show, so we wanted to create a lot of whimsical elements that would be really appealing to our younger audience, that kids would want to look at and touch, but also set it outside our world, which is what the script adhered to,” Hagney said.

After approval from the rest of the production team, the designers go on to “pulling” for costumes or collecting the pieces and materials needed for the finished product, be it from the Theatre and Interpretation Center storage room or a local thrift shop.

Lost Eras, a costume store hiding just off the Howard El stop, is a treasure chest of antiques and oddities with a longstanding commitment to NU theater. For more than 20 years, store staff like Charlotte Watson have been helping NU students, theatrical or otherwise, dig up pieces for shows. Fashion classes sometimes come through the shop to look at period garments and other oddities, such as fully dressed taxidermy squirrels and Amazonian blow-dart guns, Watson said.

“We work with theater productions, people in the drama department, the fraternities and sororities if they’re doing a special event or if they need costumes for a haunted house or a fundraiser,” she said. “They’re fantastic. … They’re very professional.”

From Costume Design 1 to Advanced Studies in Costume Design, theater majors and other interested students can use the School of Communication as a starting point for design careers.

Communication Prof. Linda Roethke teaches costume design and said in an email that she and other faculty recently wrote a costume design module, which she hopes to implement next quarter.

“My students have either interned or assisted me on professional productions when appropriate,” Roethke said. “Assisting for a TIC Mainstage Production is an excellent opportunity prior to assisting on a professional production in Chicago.”

As it stands, undergraduate costume designers, especially those like Vitaterna and Hagney who are not theater majors, stick to Northwestern Student Theatre Coalition (STUCO) shows. Vitaterner, a performance studies major who has worked on three student productions, said it is hard to get into the current costume courses and even harder to find a workspace without regular access to TIC. As an underclassman, she could be found making costumes in her dorm’s common room, but now she keeps a makeshift workspace in an off-campus apartment.

Taking much of her inspiration from Pinterest, Vitaterna enjoys perfection and detail in her costumes, which makes shows like ‘The 39 Steps” — which require many outfits and frequent quick changes — a bit of a challenge.

“I really like details in costumes,” Vitaterna said. “I like making sure the buttons on a shirt are the right color and the belt is in the right place.”

Sometimes, a particularly wacky show can require costume designers to be extra inventive. Communication sophomore Veronica Johnson, a theater major who has a work study job in the TIC costume shop, had the challenge of making a “flat suit” last year with “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley,” a show that was directed by faculty but designed by students.

“I literally had to make the character look flat, so I got some doormats and covered them in fabric and put hinges on them,” Johnson said. “I painted the back black and put these Velcro straps on his arms. … It was really stressful to deal with, but it looked really awesome on stage.”

Most recently, Johnson designed her own version of Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon queen on “Game of Thrones,” which she will sport for Halloween. Surprisingly, she was the only one of three designers interviewed to actually make a Halloween costume this year.

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