Pioneer Spotlight: Sarah Strange

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Sarah Strange
July 4, 2014

Sarah Strange, theatre lecturer, resident costume designer and costume shop manager at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, began teaching at the university in fall 2013. She teaches Introduction to Theatre, Introduction to Design, Introduction to Costume Design and Construction, Costume Design, Advanced Sewing Skills, and Stage Makeup and Theatrical Styles, in addition to designing Pioneer Players productions.

Originally from St. Louis, Mo., Strange completed a Bachelor of Science in theatre design and technology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Edwardsville, Ill., and earned a Master of Fine Arts in costume design from UW-Madison. Her work has been seen throughout the United States as well as internationally at the Prague Fringe Festival in 2009. Recently, she designed costumes for the Children’s Theatre of Madison’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” held at the Playhouse at the Overture Center in Madison, Wis. She is currently designing the costumes for “Dr. Faustus” with The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va.

With the UW-Platteville Theatre’s Pioneer Players, Strange designed the costumes for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “Tartuffe,” “Ghosts,” “The Normal Heart,” “‘night Mother” and “Godspell.” She also designed the costumes for the 2013 Heartland Festival production “Fiddler on the Roof” and is designing the costumes for the 2014 Heartland Festival production “Shrek the Musical." 

What was involved in designing the costumes for “Shrek the Musical?”

“Shrek the Musical” features a wide range of characters and creatures, which is a huge workout for a costume designer. The style of the clothes was the first hurdle. I chose to use everyday clothing items collaged together to create the characters. Donkey, for instance, has a (j.lo) fur vest and fur leg warmers as opposed to a full animal suit.

Which costume has been the most challenging to design and create?

Lord Farquaad has proved to be quite the challenge. In the films, he is portrayed with little legs and the role is typically done with the actor on his knees. My assistant shop manager, Nicole Maritch, and I have had fun collaborating on the creation of his little fake legs and the apparatus that allows the actor to operate them.

What is the role of a costume designer?

The costume designer plays many roles in the process of producing a show. My approach to design is that of storyteller. The clothes speak to the audience before the actor’s first lines. The clothes can tell the audience if the character is old or young, rich or poor, and even if we should be sympathetic to them.

Who do you collaborate with to create the costumes?

I work very closely with the director to establish the style and look of the show as well as the other design areas, scenic, lighting and sound. I also work intimately with the actors. There is a great deal of trust in dressing the actors as their characters. It’s wonderful when the actors feel at home in their costumes.

What do you most enjoy about being a costume designer?

I love the variety in my profession, but my favorite part is seeing everything come together. Sometimes, when an actor puts on his or her costume in a fitting, there is a magical moment when he or she transforms and becomes the character. I live for those moments.

What special qualities are essential in order to be an excellent costume designer?

Patience. Also, a vision of the larger picture.

When did you first become interested in costume design?

I began making my own clothes at a very young age. It wasn’t until high school that I became involved in the theatre. I found that costume design encompassed everything I loved: research, drawing, shopping, sewing, painting and even playing dress-up. I love that now I can provide that same creative outlet for my students.

Your students often participate in unique activities that enable them to use their imagination and creativity. Can you share a few examples?

In my Introduction to Theatre class, my students were given the assignment to create a short play and one group of girls went above and beyond – they wrote their own musical, based on Cecily’s diary in “The Importance of Being Earnest” – and even filmed it. I love when my students surprise me. In my Introduction to Costume Design and Construction course, the students learn how to make a pair of pajama pants, analyze characters from a script, and communicate their design ideas through sketches and collaging.

Every time I design a show, I try to introduce the students to new ideas and techniques. For example, for “Ghosts,” we built a period accurate 1880s velvet bustle dress. For “‘night Mother,” I had a custom wig built for our actress, Emily Cushing. This was the first time most of our students had ever seen a lace front ventilated wig.

What qualities do your students possess that impress you the most?

My students are so energetic and hungry to learn the next thing. They are some of the most dedicated and genuine people I have ever met.

What do you enjoy most about teaching your courses?

My courses remind me every day why I chose to go into this field. They keep me excited and ready to challenge my students and myself. There is nothing better than sharing what I am passionate about with others. I especially love showing my students that nothing is impossible.

How do you hope your classes help prepare students for their careers and lives?

My students are constantly getting experience working in a real costume shop on real costumes used in a real production. Even in stage makeup, the students are learning how to apply their own makeup, which is incredibly useful to the aspiring young actor. Beyond just their careers, I also believe that I am teaching them invaluable life skills. My students will know how to sew their buttons back on, hem their pants, do laundry, iron their shirts and in the event of a zombie apocalypse, they will be the most fashionably dressed survivors.

Interview conducted by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education.
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