Finding inspiration in the costume shop

For nearly 20 years, designer Tina Vivian has sketched, designed and created the costumes that bring theatre to life in Strosacker Theatre.

<em>Tina Vivian, second from left, designs costumes for Alma College Theatre.</em> Tina Vivian, second from left, designs costumes for Alma College Theatre.

There is a room that lies hidden in plain sight along the back corridor of the Oscar E. Remick Heritage Center for the Performing Arts. Mounted upon the door that seals this room is a small plaque that reads “Costume Shop.”

This modest door scarcely hints at the treasures that lie on the other side. Through the large window on the north wall a great deal of natural light spills in and fills the room. Covering each of the remaining walls are tall shelves with totes stacked high upon them.

Inside these totes are threads, fabrics and countless other craft supplies awaiting the day that they come together in some shape or another. Then they, too, may hang somewhere in the room as one of the various costumes crafted especially for Alma College Theatre and Dance.

Busily working amidst all of this is instructor and costume designer Tina Vivian ’94. Although working fervently, Vivian has a calm and cool air about her that comes with the experience of occupying this domain for nearly 20 years. Yet, the story on how she wound up here is something of interest.

Costuming and printmaking

“When my kids were growing up we were involved in the community theatre in Big Rapids,” says Vivian. “It was always a really big deal for us. I made their costumes, and it got to where I was doing more and more.

“Somehow, I wound up costuming for the Ferris State University theatre. It was when I did the costuming for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that I decided costuming was sort of cool, and that I could do it.”

Still, it wasn’t exactly what she planned to do with the rest of her life.

Twenty years after finishing high school and once her kids were grown, Vivian came to Alma College to pursue a BFA in printmaking and drawing. After receiving her degree, she obtained an MFA in printmaking.

Vivian quickly began earning prizes at regional printmaking shows and secured two part-time jobs as a printmaker following graduation. It was then that a friend pushed her to look into a costuming position that was advertised by Alma College in 1999.

Tartuffe by Molière. Tartuffe by Molière.Ribbon, lace and long curly wigs

“I left the career path that I thought I was going to travel down and took this job instead,” says Vivian. “At one point I really questioned what I was doing. When I walked into this shop, though, my only thought was, ‘Yes, this is where I want to be!’

“The first show that I did here was Three Sisters, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t even get it finished because I had so many other things going on,” Vivian admits. “At the time it was hard to enlist the help of students because I didn’t know them or what they were capable of.

“I felt so good at the end of that production,” says Vivian. “More importantly, I felt as though I had made the correct decision in coming here. It wasn’t just me making prints in a studio either. Rather, there was a whole team of people to collaborate with, and in those settings so much more can be accomplished.”

Vivian also has fond memories in costuming A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Importance of Being Ernest and Tartuffe, the French farce that requires over-the-top costuming.

“I got to put all of these guys in ribbon, lace and these long curly wigs,” she says. “I was terrified that they would hate it. Interestingly, they really enjoyed getting to be the pretty ones for once.”

The gift of creativity

While Vivian may not go to work and make prints or draw every day, she has not abandoned the skills she obtained in college. Each year she does at least one small print to give away.

Additionally, before a production she sketches renderings of each character. These aid Vivian in implementing the research that she does in order to discover the appropriate garments, styles and colors to utilize in each play.

“Even if it’s hard work, and it’s exhausting, at the end of the day I can walk out and know that we accomplished something,” says Vivian. “That is what makes each day worthwhile to me.”

In addition to her work for the theatre, Vivian teaches both a class and a lab in the costuming shop. Her 2016-17 assistant, Jessica Peters ’17, has found a job as a dresser.

“I think that having a job where you can be a creative person in this world is such an amazing gift,” says Vivian. “I am so lucky. As I get older, I know that I’m not going to do this forever, though.”

<em>Tina Vivian, as Louisa May Alcott</em> Tina Vivian, as Louisa May AlcottLouisa May Alcott comes to life

Vivian recently acquired her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“I keep coming across these fascinating things in my research about costumes and how people lived during different periods in history,” says Vivian.

“I want to do something with this information, and I want to share some of this excitement for theatre and for the arts as a whole,” says Vivian. “Kids have excitement for these things, and then as they age people tend to discourage it and call it an impractical pursuit. Through writing it is my hope to let kids know that these passions are okay.”

Stemming from this idea, Vivian desires to take a Louisa May Alcott costume she has designed and wear it to schools in order to share the historical facts her research has uncovered.

“These talks came from the inspiration I found in the costume shop — it’s the theatre, the costuming and the writing that I am passionate about all rolled into one,” says Vivian.

“The arts are important. The arts are humanity. They are where people find comfort in times of unease,” says Vivian. “The fact that Alma College does such an amazing job supporting the arts means a lot. Not every place gets behind the them the way that Alma does.”

Story published on August 23, 2017