Introducing PHS Technical Theatre Students to Sewing Skills and Costume Design

Art Discipline: Theatre

This was my first year teaching at Ponderosa High School, but I graduated as a student here several years ago. Coming back, I expected the Theatre department to be as vibrant and successful as when I’d left it; unfortunately, a tumultuous few years with a revolving door of program directors had left the performing arts in upheaval. In particular, our technical prowess had diminished, and the hand-me-down wisdom from experienced students to their successors had gotten terribly lost along the way. I knew that getting us back on track would take some outside help.
            When we approached our big musical of the year, Sweet Charity, I knew the costumes would make or break the production. We need 1960s mod, go-go dancers, hippies! I had a handful of students who seemed interested in costume work, but they simply hadn’t had the guidance they needed. Because my own directorial demands had already overstretched me, I knew I wouldn’t be able to put the amount of time and attention into these costume students as would be needed for a production this size, and certainly anything we did would be merely a stop-gap rather than a teachable process that could carry over into later costuming adventures.
            I’d heard of Julie Snow, a local seamstress and designer who had costumed for Ponderosa and a neighboring high school in past years. Typically, though, she was hired simply to do the job; I wanted her to teach the job. I wanted to turn her process into a learning experience that students could replicate on later shows. We don’t have the budget to hire Julie for every one of our shows; we do have the kids who are passionate about creating great theatre and desire to learn from experts.
            Julie eagerly jumped right in. She worked with my costumes crew and students in a Technical Theatre class to cover the entire process from era research to character-based design to sewing skills. Beyond the costumes Sweet Charity called for, Julie covered silhouettes throughout history, went into the depths of color theory, and encouraged students to think critically about why theatrical costumes were different from everyday fashion design.
            Overall, this project was a fantastic experience. The additional funding allowed us to compensate Julie for her time spent engaging with students, and the kids who participated have since gone on to design costumes for our final two productions of the year, working independently but with Julie’s system. I believe the biggest challenge came when we hit crunch time for Sweet Charity—that stressful day right before your first dress rehearsal—when there were things Julie could’ve done herself much faster than a student. Each item, though, was used as a learning opportunity, and Julie refrained from an “I’ll just do it myself!” attitude. The students learned so much and were able to experience it all first-hand because of Julie's patience and care.

I am confident that because of this project we will have students who produce strong costume designs for all future productions, and I will assure that the wealth of knowledge Julie gave to the current students will be passed down to each lower grade level going forward. Reproducing this project every few years to reinvigorate the passion around costumes is something I would love to pursue with Julie Snow, and I believe a similar model with other concentration-specific technicians and local artists would be very successful. I aim to unleash the potential of the kids in this program through this model. I can't wait!

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