Nov. 14th, 2006

labricoleuse: (Default)
This post is kind of cheating--it come from a query posted over in [livejournal.com profile] theatrecostumes by [livejournal.com profile] jessafurr, so it wasn't technically someone Asking LaBricoleuse, but rather someone asking a whole community of folks...i thought i'd post my response here though as part of the Ask LaBricoleuse series.

Here are [livejournal.com profile] jessafurr's original questions:

I was hoping to get some advice from any of you veterans out there. I'm really hoping to go to grad school after I graduate and one day do professional work or teach at a university. I do have some questions though.
1) What grad schools would you suggest for a costume designer? Any really good ones near the midwest with assistantships that would wave tuition?


My most recent post on MFA programs was specific to the field of Costume Production, which is a different matter than Costume Design, though similar.

And, in case you wonder, "what's the difference between the two fields?" I'll address that first!

An MFA in Costume Production focuses specifically on construction technologies and histories. In these programs, you will learn draping, tailoring, pattern drafting (often both by hand and using software such as CAD), and crafts topics like dyeing, millinery, and maskmaking. Some programs may also have archiving classes on analyzing and/or preserving vintage garments (see the CoStar Vintage Clothing Archive site for one example of what type of work falls into this area), or managerial tracks for those interested in pursuing a career in costume shop management.

With an MFA in Costume Design, you will probably still have a certain amount of production coursework--draping classes, crafts classes, drafting, dyeing perhaps, etc.--but your primary focus will be on designing. You will likely study rendering techniques, design theory, and ideally, have opportunities to design for actual productions. One thing to ask with design programs is how much practical experience opportunities there are for their MFA candidates--will you only design hypothetical shows that never actually get produced, or will you design several shows a season and have hands-on practical design experience? Will you get to design shows that have a construction budget (i.e., costumes that will be custom-built from your renderings) or will your designs have to be largely pulled and altered from stock or rentals?

Programs that focus on design or a combination of design and production are a lot more common than programs that offer a production-only area of specialty. If you are uncertain as to whether you want to specialize in design or production (or if you want to make a go at both), one of the combined-focus programs is what you should be looking for. And, you should definitely contact the directors of the programs at the schools that interest you--talk to them about their programs, make an appointment to go visit and see the facilities, perhaps even sit in on a class or two. Actually going to the department and the shops will be invaluable in helping you decide if a particular school or program is for you.

In terms of applications and interviews, the portfolio advice i gave in my previous post on MFA programs holds true--start your portfolios early! The program directors will take into consideration your design history and experience, so the portfolio should have renderings and swatches and the like in addition to photos; don't worry if all you have from your undergrad work is class projects, that's ok, put them in there. As i said in my other post--do summer stock during your summers! It's fun, it's great experience, it gives you more crap for your portfolio, and it shows you are serious about a career in the theatre.

In terms of what grad schools to suggest, that depends on what areas you want to focus on, and everyone's going to have different ideas on that front. Talk to your costuming professors in undergrad--they are a good starting resource--and if there are any schools near you that you can visit in say, a weekend trip, call them up and go visit! Ask the professors, ask the students, get as many opinions as you can. And, make a list of what else is important to you in a grad school--geographical location sounds like it's important in this case, and good funding for MFA candidates.

When you visit programs, ask if they are fully or partially funded, and with what kinds of funding. Work-study positions? Teaching assistantships? Research assistantships? Any specific grants and scholarships? Where i work, we have a combination of all of these, and many of our MFA candidates pay for their studies with several different kinds of funding aid. I would caution against asking specifically about tuition waivers in those exact terms, because (and this is just me talking here, nothing at all official) the word "waiving" of fees implies a free ride, something for nothing, and nearly all graduate programs that offer funding expect you to do something in return, whether that be teach an undergrad intro course or grade exams or oversee costume donations and loans, etc etc.

So, how do you find what programs are out there and begin this vast search? I'd start by checking out the Survey of Costume Programs: http://www.unc.edu/costumesurvey/

Full disclosure: My department head created and maintains this site. I am the first to admit that it's not ideally set-up, but the Survey is nevertheless a great resource for anyone seeking higher education programs in costume fields. It's a one-stop compendium of this sort of info; it lists all the schools in the US and a few abroad that have costuming-oriented degree programs, both undergraduate and graduate. Each school's entry has the types of degrees offered, areas of focus (i.e., design, tailoring, history, etc), faculty/staff, contact info, and links to the programs' websites.

The main caveat here is to remember as you search through it that the individual schools listed are responsible for making sure their entries are up-to-date and accurate. ALWAYS check the school's website or contact them directly to make sure the information on degrees offered, subjects, and staff are correct.

In terms of usability, my primary criticism of the site is that at present the programs are listed by region and alphabetically by school, but no search function by which one might, say, look for every school listed that offers an MFA in Costume Design, or a BA with a costuming focus, etc. This will however, be useful for seeking schools by geographical area. See what's listed in the area you want, and then ask your professors about those schools.

For example, in the Great Lakes Region, there are nine schools with costume programs listed in Illinois, of which five offer graduate degree options. Of those five, I've heard the most good stuff about the programs at Northwestern and UI-Champaign/Urbana, but if i wanted an MFA in design from an Illinois school, i'd contact all five for more information, rather than just restricting myself to NWU and UI-C/U. It all depends on your priorities!

2) Seeing as theatre jobs are often limited (and my parents are harping at me to make sure I'll be able to find a career with benefits and such) how likely is it that I will find SOME sort of job that would provide insurance and a decent income?

Frankly, i believe that the idea that theatre jobs are limited is a myth. I know it's commonly bandied about and has been for years--i heard it all the time when i was an undergrad. "You can't make a living in theatre!" That really honestly has not been my experience at all. Sure, it's hard to get work as an actor, and sure, it's not a field you can survive on just any town in America, but if you are not trying to be an actor and you are willing to go where the work is, there's plenty of work to be found. What's the cliche? Something like that for every actor you see onstage there are twenty technicians working behind-the-scenes in some capacity to make a production happen. That's cliche because it's true--there are LOTS of jobs in production and design.

Decent income, insurance, those things are out there. Yes, there are a lot of small-potatoes theatre companies that will ask you to work for peanuts or free, but those are not companies you should be working for--people who want to do costumes for a hobby, for fun, or as a supplementary income should take those jobs, not people who want to be able to live off a career in the field. Universities often provide good wages and insurance, so if teaching appeals to you or if you work at a professional theatre in residence on a university campus (for example, the Huntington Theatre at Boston University), that's one avenue of possible employment. Union shops are another--many of the unions provide insurance and other benefits to their members and help ensure that you make a living wage. Freelancing can provide you with a great income, but often you are responsible for your own insurance (which sometimes can be had through organizations like the Freelancers Union). Remember too that you aren't limited to theatre companies--ballet and opera costuming are other options, event costumes, theme parks, cruise ships, sports teams, Las Vegas performers, television and film...all of these areas need costumes designed and built, and who will do that? Costume professionals.

I won't lie and say working as a costumer is a breeze and that i frequently throw hundred dollar bills out the window to the masses because money means nothing to me anymore, but it's not a one-way ticket to welfare and starvation or anything.

Good luck with your search for a graduate school program in design, and feel free to comment or email with any further questions, or your own experiences finding a school, finding work, etc.

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