Schuler flourishes in UW-Platteville Theatre Program

Blair Schuler discusses trim options with design mentor Sarah Strange in the UW-Platteville Costume Studio
Blair Schuler discusses trim options with design mentor Sarah Strange in the UW-Platteville Costume Studio.

Update: The “Cloud 9” production has been postponed as of the publishing of this article.

“In the UW-Platteville Theatre Program, I found my second family.” – Blair Schuler, senior theatre major, UW-Platteville

For as long as she can remember, Blair Schuler, a senior theatre major with a minor in musical theatre and English and an emphasis in performance and costume design at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, has loved performing. When she graduates from UW-Platteville this May, she hopes to pursue a career in theatre performance and/or costume design.

Thanks to acting and costume design opportunities Schuler had in elementary, middle and high school and at UW-Platteville, she is well on her way to attaining that goal.

Early theatre experiences

Schuler, a Hazel Green, Wisconsin native, first experienced the magic of performing at the age of seven, when she played the role of Mystic in the production “Aladdin” at the Grand Opera House in Dubuque, Iowa. The experience piqued her interest, and her affection for the theatre blossomed.

Between the ages of seven and 16, Schuler performed in nine community theatre productions at the Grand Opera House and the Bell Tower Theatre in Dubuque. Through those experiences, she found camaraderie with other children who were just as excited about theatre as she was.

“The schools I grew up in were very small and, therefore, they didn’t have much money to spend on the arts – however, what they lacked in funds, they made up for in joy, and in fostering a love of performance,” she said. “My time in children’s theatre taught me a lot of valuable lessons, but most importantly, I learned to love theatre for its own sake, not for the people I was working with or the people who came to see the show.”

Schuler’s early acting experiences nurtured her creative talents and inspired her to continue acting throughout her high school years at Southwestern Wisconsin High School. There, she performed in four high school theatre productions, further honing her acting and leadership, teamwork, athleticism and time management skills.

“In high school, I wasn’t necessarily the most popular student,” said Schuler. “When I went to rehearsal, I was supported by teachers and peers, and we were all working toward creating the best production we could. It was what got me through.”

One day, during her junior year at Southwestern, the school’s assistant theatre director pulled her aside and encouraged her to take theatre classes and audition at UW-Platteville.

“She saw my work ethic and my passion, and she wanted to set me up for success in college,” said Schuler. “The most feasible way to do that was to get started in a program that could offer more than Southwestern could: the UW-Platteville Theatre Program.”

Excited at the possibility of gaining additional theatre experience, Schuler followed her advice. In fall 2015, she enrolled in the Beginning Acting course, and in spring 2016, she enrolled in the Voice and Diction and Dance for Musical Theatre courses at UW-Platteville.

While taking the classes, she began auditioning for roles in UW-Platteville’s theatre productions. Over the next four years, she performed in 14 university productions, including “Marat/Sade,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Noises Off!,” “1776,” “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “A Doll’s House Part 2,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” the upcoming “Cloud 9,” and in the annual One Act Festival the last four years.

Schuler said that, as a high school student, she was walking into a whole different world than she was used to.

“The audition settings were more professional – you had to be more prepared,” she said. “When it came to performing, I had to meet the level of dedication and commitment that everyone else was putting into even the rehearsals. In my high school, performing came naturally to me; I understood where the characters were coming from. Now, I had to research the history of my characters, and bring that knowledge to every rehearsal. I had to be present, and on my toes, and ready to work, watch and learn. To me, there wasn’t room for error because I had so much talent around me.”

Following her graduation from Southwestern Wisconsin High School in May 2016, Schuler began thinking about her future career.

“When I tried to come up with a career other than theatre to pursue, I discovered that I couldn’t think of anything else that I could possibly do with the rest of my life and be happy,” she said.

Knowing this, she began researching universities throughout the upper Midwest and eastern United States. After careful consideration, she chose to attend UW-Platteville because it offered an outstanding theatre program, individualized education and hands-on learning.

Individualized education

From the moment Schuler began taking classes at UW-Platteville, she knew she had made the right decision. More than anything, she loved the fact that she was able to work with her professors to individualize her education to meet her interests and future career goals.

“If there was anything that I wanted to try that didn’t necessarily fit into my traditional degree program, all of my professors were open to my ideas and flexible when it came to integrating them into my schedule,” she said.

Schuler noted that UW-Platteville’s knowledgeable, supportive professors have been critical to her success at UW-Platteville.

“In the theatre program, I found my second family,” said Schuler. “The professors are ridiculously supportive, and they push me to do my best in all my endeavors. I’m always excited to show up to class, work or rehearsal, and I love getting to be myself every single day, without fear of judgement.”

Hands-on learning opportunities

Schuler said she is also appreciative of the many hands-on learning opportunities she has had at UW-Platteville, including theatre performance, costume design, undergraduate research, employment with the theatre program and study abroad.

“As a theatre major at UW-Platteville, I’ve had the privilege to perform in 11 mainstage productions and three one-act festivals, as well as work backstage on another three productions and costume design three more,” said Schuler. “Most recently, I was given the opportunity to choreograph our mainstage musical, ‘The Rocky Horror Show.’ These experiences were educational, formative, challenging, sometimes formidable, but always very fun, and they enabled me to gain skills that will be essential in my future career.”

From acting, Schuler developed skills in script and character analysis, techniques for playing believable characters, thinking “outside the box,” “following her gut,” teamwork and communication. From technical theatre, she developed skills in dyeing, painting, distressing, using descriptive language, teamwork and communication.

“Blair is a perfect example of the kind of theatre student we are training at UW-Platteville,” said Dr. Ann Farrelly, professor of theatre at UW-Platteville and Schuler’s academic advisor. “She is more than capable of participating in theatre in many areas, onstage and backstage. She is creative, ambitious, hard-working and highly employable. It’s been such a joy getting to teach her over these last five years. When she graduates, she will definitely have left her mark on this program.”

Undergraduate research, ‘Cloud 9’:

In November, Schuler received a scholarship from the university’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to conduct undergraduate research to design the costumes for the university’s production of “Cloud 9,” a feminist play written by English Playwright Caryl Churchill. The comedy’s main themes are personal growth and accepting people for who they are.

Schuler is enjoying the challenge of designing costumes for the play’s two very different settings: Act One is set in Africa in the 1890s, and Act Two is set in contemporary London. There is also an added twist: the actors switch roles between the acts, and there is some gender-bent casting in both acts.

Schuler’s research primarily involves pinpointing silhouettes specific to the time period and finding ways to translate things such as social status and professions through the clothing. She also will be incorporating African prints into her designs, which will be included in her research as well. After finding adequate information on those fronts, she will also analyze the play in order to design and build costumes that fit exactly what the production team is trying to say.

“As costume designers, we always start with the script and the focus of our work is on telling the story through the clothing,” said Sarah Strange, senior lecturer of theatre and resident costume designer at UW-Platteville and Schuler’s mentor for the project. “We then conduct research into the history, locale and visual aesthetics of the world of the play that we want to create. After Blair designs the costumes for each character, the UW-Platteville costume shop will work collaboratively with her to build and realize the costumes. She will work very closely with me, as I will drape and pattern her designs to fit the actors.”

“I’m so excited to see the finished product, and to hear how my designs affect the actors who wear them and the audiences that see them,” said Schuler. “Sarah has already been immensely helpful throughout the design process, and she will continue to do so until the production opens.”

“As a mentor to student costume designers, it is my job to not only guide them through the process but to also challenge their ideas,” said Strange. “Theatre is a collaborative effort and cannot be designed in a vacuum. I also provide assistance from the beginning to the end, whether it is sourcing materials, fabrics and accessories, or guiding them through fittings and what alterations to make in order to truly express the character.”

Strange noted that Schuler is an exceptional student who is choosing to focus her many talents on costume design as well as performance. “That choice illustrates the beauty of the size of our program,” she said. “We are able to allow students to explore more than one area of the theatrical arts.

As a student of mine, I know Blair to be inquisitive and precise,” added Strange. “Costume design is a very detailed-oriented and complex endeavor that requires a wide range of skills. I’m impressed with her ability to navigate through the challenges of each project she encounters. When she designed the costumes for our production of ‘Fool for Love,’ she truly captured the essence of each character without resorting to clichés or stereotypes.”

Employment, Theatre Program:

Ever since her freshman year, Schuler has worked as an employee of the Theatre Program, which has allowed her to refine her scenic construction, painting and sewing skills while earning an income.

“When I got to college, I needed a job, and the only thing that worked with my class and rehearsal schedule was to work for the Theatre Program,” she said. “However, I didn’t know how to do anything related to technical theatre. Luckily, Jeffrey Strange, associate professor of theatre, and Sarah Strange took me under their wings, and they taught me everything I needed to know to be a successful theatre technician. I liked designing and making costumes so much that I decided to add it as an emphasis.”

Last summer, thanks in part to her theatre education and work experiences at UW-Platteville, Schuler had the chance to work as a costume craftsperson and wardrobe technician in the costume department of Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, a professional theatre company in Holland, Michigan.

“My experience manipulating clothing in unusual ways and thinking creatively in the UW-Platteville costume shop is really what landed me the job at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre,” said Schuler. “While I was there, I really loved getting to meet and work with seasoned professionals and learn their techniques. It’s been great to bring those tricks home and share them with my peers.”

Education abroad:

In January 2018 and January 2020, Schuler expanded her horizons beyond the stage when she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to explore another culture in the Theatre Program’s short-term, faculty-led education abroad program in British theatre. The purpose of the experience was to study the roots of the English theatre tradition, both in performance and design style, and see how they inspired the theatre of today.

“My favorite things about London were seeing all of the productions (six professional productions in five days) and getting to tour the theater buildings, to see how they were operated,” said Schuler. “I had the chance to do an acting workshop at the Globe Theatre, and stand on the stage there, and that was really just stunning. It inspired me, and gave me a new goal to work toward.”

Looking ahead

After she graduates from UW-Platteville, Schuler would love to work in the theatre full-time, either in performance or costume design.

Thanks to her education and hands-on learning experiences at UW-Platteville, Schuler feels fully prepared to enter the workforce.

“UW-Platteville has given me the opportunity to put the skills that I’ve learned in the classroom to practical use, which will allow me to enter the workforce with an impressive resume and portfolio of work, and the knowledge to back it up,” she said. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I believe my drive to always do better than I did the day before will make me a successful theatre artist.”