Alumna Q&A: Costume designer Katherine Stebbins ’04

by Amy Guan | 9/29/16 12:00am

Katherine Stebbins ’04 discovered her passion for costume design at Dartmouth after designing for two shows, eventually graduating with a major in philosophy and a minor in theater. After graduation, Stebbins received her MFA in costume design from Carnegie Mellon University in 2009. She worked as a costume designer in Chicago until 2011, where she worked with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the American Theater Company, among others. She now works in Boston.

I see that you were a philosophy major at Dartmouth — when and how did you get into costume design?

KS: I started doing costume design while I was there — I took a costume design class and a costume construction class, which were the only two classes offered in costuming at Dartmouth at the time. After that, I already had a couple of other basic theater classes under my belt and was pretty close to a minor, so I took one more class on theater production, where we did set painting and things like that. At that point, I was really getting interested in costume design. I designed two shows while I was at Dartmouth, so when I left Dartmouth, I knew I wanted to go explore costume design further.

How do you begin the process of creating costume sets? Do you have a process you stick to?

KS: I read the script, I read articles about the script, I read about the show, but I try not to see other versions of the show done before because I generally don’t want them to inform my design unless the director has a particular style or previous show they want to emulate. So you start there, script and research, but not just researching the play and its history. Why it’s being done now is also very important, and you always want to know why the director picked this play or why the theater picked this play and what they’re trying to show an audience. After this, you start getting more specific, and you look at the characters. You start specifically picking out details about the characters in the script, seeing what other characters say about the characters or what the script says in the description of the character...You want to get a lot of research and images together because that is the best way to show other designers what you’re thinking and what visuals the script brought to mind for you. You bring these ideas to directors and other designers to start to find out what they like, what they respond to and what they don’t like The research process is probably the most important part of the design process, and it can take a very long time, or it goes very fast. Then you go on from there to the sketches of the characters, which can be broken down to picking poses for the characters. This can be just as important as the clothing they’re wearing because when the director looks at the full picture of the character, the attitude, not just the clothing, can make or break if they like what they’re seeing. I also do some color swatching, where I pick a color palette and show the director what I think would look great with the show. I assign colors to characters, and then the directors and other designers come back to critique and throw ideas around, so I make changes after. We’ll go back and forth like this for a while until they’re happy with the rendering.

What is the most interesting production you’ve done?

KS: Probably one of my shows in grad school because in university scenes, the directors tend to experiment more. It’s very exciting when the director wants to do something that’s not usual, that people don’t expect to see. The most exciting one I can recall is a play by a Chinese writer Gao Xingjian called “The Other Shore.” We had a director from Hong Kong, and his process was different from anything any of us were used to. The actors had to completely rearrange their class schedules to work with this guy. The designing was very much done in rehearsal and things were changing all the time. It was very scary as a grad student because I had no idea what was going to happen, but it was a lot of fun and I absolutely loved how it turned out.

After relocating to Boston in 2011, did you see a difference in how theaters in Boston and Chicago were run?

KS: Yeah, very much so. Every city I’ve worked in has been a very different community. Chicago is a fabulous theater town. Chicago is very interested in people from Chicago theater in Chicago, so actors, designers from Chicago — they really want homegrown people, and they’ve got a great theater community there that’s capable of fulfilling all of their theater needs. They have a very busy theater scene, and it’s not just the big theaters. They also have a lot of what they call storefront theaters, which are basically stages on storefronts, which are very small and do small shows with small budgets. A lot of people come out of college and start theater groups in Chicago, so there’s always new theater companies coming and going, which is very exciting. Boston, on the other hand, is a little more old school. Boston’s greatest cultural scene, in my opinion, is music, and they have many conservatories dedicated to music, which sort of carries over to a lot of opera. I’ve found that a designer’s most stable work in Boston is through universities, because a lot of colleges have theater programs but not fully staffed programs, so they hire outside designers and directors to come in. In Boston, I get a lot of work with college kids. I enjoyed those the most, because the college students were always really enthusiastic to be in those shows, especially when they got to work with professional designers. The scenes are very different, but they both have their pluses and minuses, so it’s been really fun getting to see how they work.