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Backstage Stars

Montclair State grads bring hit productions to life from Broadway to Europe

Posted in: Arts

Jeffrey Colton Reid ’17, making costumes in costume shop.

When audiences applaud, it’s not only for bravura onstage performances, but also for the behind-the-scenes artistry of costume designers, sound and lighting technicians, and hair and makeup artists that brings a show to life. 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.

According to Theatre and Dance Professor Debra Otte, the department’s theatre production and design concentration gives students both the knowledge and experience to excel in the industry. “Due to our department’s large scale, we’re able to produce three musicals, three plays and three dance concerts, as well as workshop and concert events each academic year,” she says. “Each of these are designed, managed and built by our undergraduate students, giving them experience with a wide variety of performance styles,” she says.

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 Eric Winterling, a New York City costume shop. “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 include 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 like and enjoy what I do. It’s what I’m good at,” he explains.

The Finishing Touches

Like Dobkowski before her, Samantha LaScala ’17 is gaining valuable experience sourcing and buying new fabrics for costumes in upcoming Broadway shows as a head shopper at Eric Winterling.

Since April, LaScala, who earned her BFA in Theatre Production and Design with a concentration in Costume and Wigs/Makeup, 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 her current position.

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

LaScala’s classmate Jeffrey Colton Reid ’17, who goes by Jeffrey Colton professionally, credits Montclair State’s program with giving him the hands-on experience he needed to compile an impressive 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 is a self-described freelance costume maker, he also works full time for Broadway costume shop Parsons-Meares LTD, where his credits include the Broadway hits such 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

During her last semester, Cheyenne Pellicoro, another member of the class of 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 how productions develop from script and research to performance. “It’s satisfying to see the end product each and every time. It never gets old.”

She reports that she gained the experience to launch her career as a student. “One of my most rewarding experiences was being the costume designer for Aida in 2016,” she remembers. “My design received the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Theatrical Design Excellence Award and was displayed at the Center in 2017.” Her costume design for Aida will also represent the U.S. in the Emerging Artists category at the Prague Quadrennial in June 2019.

Pellicoro’s classmate Deirdre Morgan, who is cosmetologist/costume technician with Disney Cruise Line, agrees that Montclair State was a launch pad for a post-graduate career that has also included stints as an assistant to several designers, a fabric shopper and as an Off-Broadway theater wardrobe supervisor. “Ultimately all of my work through college and after college helped to build my resume and portfolio,” she says. “My professors ensured that I was ready to work professionally before I even received my degree.”

According to Morgan, the Disney Cruise Line presents original productions – of musicals or classic movies and a variety show that brings Disney characters to life – that are performed nowhere else in the world. “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 Montclair State prepared him 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 the world over. He is currently working with Rom on the scenic design for Mozart’s Da Ponte trilogy at San Francisco Opera. “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 and the world, including in Europe and South Africa as a lighting director for dance companies RIOULT Dance NY and 10 Hairy Legs – and this summer 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 Flamos is not touring with dance companies, he works as an associate lighting designer for Off-Broadway and regional productions, such as Goodspeed Musicals’ production of Oliver! in Connecticut. “The work is exciting because the locations and the people you are working with are always changing,” he says.

Listen Up

May graduate Abigail Martin has already found work as head sound technician on the National Yiddish Theatre’s Off-Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.

“I would not 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.”

Even in her first month as a freshman at Montclair State, Martin was given a real show assignment with responsibility and expectations. “The professors care,” she explains. “The theatre program is the closest environment to the professional world that I have experienced.”