When audiences applaud, it’s not only for bravura onstage performances, but also for all the behind-the-scenes artistry that brings a show to life, including costume design, sound and lighting, and hair and makeup. Graduates of Montclair State’s Theatre and Dance department – which was recently ranked #1 in New Jersey by College Factual – are making their mark on productions the world over, not only on stage but backstage as well.
According to Theatre and Dance Professor Debra Otte, theatre production and design students gain both the knowledge and experience to excel in the industry.
“Due to our department’s large scale, we produce three musicals, three plays and three dance concerts, as well as workshop and concert events each academic year,” she says. “Each is designed, managed and built by our undergraduate students, giving them experience with a wide variety of performance styles.”
Creating characters through costumes
As a student, award-winning freelance designer Leon Dobkowski ’02 was excited by the idea of shaping characters through costumes. “You give a garment to an actor and they create a person around that,” he says.
After graduating, he worked for the New York City costume shop Eric Winterling, where he shopped for costume materials. “As a shopper there, I really learned how a sketch is turned into a costume,” he recalls. He honed his craft on big Broadway musicals such as Wicked and Shrek, before earning an MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
While Dobkowski maintains a home base studio in New York City, he is in demand all over the country. His summer 2018 credits included lavish productions of Annie and The Wiz at The Muny in St. Louis, the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre.
Dobkowski describes his craft as a lengthy, collaborative process. “It’s a lot of work. But I enjoy what I do. It’s what I’m good at,” he says.
The finishing touches
Like Dobkowski before her, Samantha LaScala ’17 is now gaining valuable experience sourcing and buying new fabrics for costumes in upcoming Broadway shows as a head shopper at Eric Winterling.
Since April, LaScala has also been the hair/wig designer and stylist at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, where, as a student intern, she made the connections that led to the job she holds now.
Wigs, she believes, bring characters to life. “It’s amazing to see the actor become the character once the hair is on,” she says. “Costumes do the same thing, but a wig really is the finishing touch that makes actors see their characters.”
Building a portfolio
Jeffrey Colton Reid ’17, who goes by Jeffrey Colton professionally, credits his alma mater with giving him the hands-on experience he needed to compile a costume design portfolio. “In my time at Montclair State, I would say I made or altered a costume or costume piece for every show the department presented,” he recalls.
Equally beneficial, Colton says, were the department faculty and staff. “Having professors working in the industry set me up to have a good connection to the industry even before I graduated.”
Today, while Colton describes himself as a freelance costume maker, he also works full time for Broadway costume shop Parsons-Meares LTD, where his credits include such hits as Frozen and Aladdin.
“When working for costume maker Lynne Baccus, I worked on Hello, Dolly! I’ve also made costume pieces for the U.S. tour of The Lion King, for American Ballet Theatre and worked in the Macy’s Parade studio,” he says.
From intern to employee
As a senior, Cheyenne Pellicoro, who also graduated in 2017, interned with the costume design team of Tony Award-winning Hamilton, which led to a full-time job. “At Hamilton, I swatch and shop for fabrics; create the ‘Bibles,’ which have information about each character’s costume from head to toe; deliver fabric to costume shops; set up fitting rooms; and ship costumes to companies on tour,” she says.
Pellicoro, who is also an assistant costume designer at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, loves watching productions develop from script and research to performance. “It never gets old,” she says.
She says she gained the experience she needed to launch her career as a student. “One of my most rewarding experiences was being the costume designer for Aida in 2016,” she remembers. Her costume design for Aida, which received the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Design Excellence Award, will also represent the U.S. in the Emerging Artists category at the Prague Quadrennial in June 2019.
For classmate Deirdre Morgan, a cosmetologist/costume technician with Disney Cruise Line, the University was also a launch pad for a postgraduate career that has included stints as an assistant to several designers, a fabric shopper and as an off-Broadway theater wardrobe supervisor.
The Disney Cruise Line presents original productions that bring Disney characters to life. “It’s almost impossible to realize what an army the costuming team is,” she says. “I love the creative aspect, but I also love being a part of the energy backstage, where running from quick change to quick change is so exciting.”
Setting the stage
Scenic designer Aaron Turetsky ’15 believes college set the stage for an exciting career. “I get to collaborate with other artists to create productions that are entertaining, emotional and thought-provoking,” he says.
As a student he interned with Blackwalnut LLC, an Emmy Award-winning scene shop and with the Wexford Festival Opera, which sent him to Ireland to assist Theatre and Dance Professor Erhard Rom on the European premiere production of Silent Night.
Since graduating, he has assisted Rom on more than 25 major productions for opera houses worldwide. “I help translate his beautiful designs into scale models, drafting packets and paint elevations for the rest of the creative team and scene shop to use,” he explains.
Shedding new light
“If you want to know how to work in dance, musicals, theater, opera and live events, you won’t find a better place in New Jersey than Montclair State,” insists Jason Flamos ’10, who has worked all over the country, Europe and South Africa as a lighting director for dance companies RIOULT Dance NY and 10 Hairy Legs – and most recently at Colorado’s Vail International Dance Festival with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. “If you want hands-on, you’ll get hands-on at Montclair State. It’s pretty much a sandbox to play and learn in so long as you’re willing to apply yourself and give it everything you’ve got.”
When not touring with dance companies, Flamos works as an associate lighting designer for off-Broadway and regional productions.
May 2018 graduate Abigail Martin quickly found work as head sound technician on the National Yiddish Theatre’s off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my internships,” she confesses. “I spent every single summer away from school learning.” As a production audio intern with The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series in 2017, she fell in love with the city – and her career. “I learned a lot about audio, but I also learned that work should be fun. If you’re not laughing while sweating and running cable through tiny holes while dodging raccoons left and right in a theater in Central Park, then you’re not doing it right.”