When costume designer David Howard was a student just starting to carve his path in the theater world, he thought he knew what that path would look like. An avid performer, David always thought he’d be an actor, and spent his time preparing to strut the boards. It was in college where David started to realize that he wasn’t a master performer; luckily, he didn’t let this deter him from the theater in general. He stuck with it, although on a slightly different, more meandering path. “I always say that I have a degree in the world of theater,” he jokes.
It’s quite ﬁtting that David should spend much of his time now showing aspiring theater artists another side of the love of performance that likely drives them to explore imagined worlds and long tech rehearsals alike. As an Associate Professor of Costume Design at the University of Rhode Island, David says that much of his job is to help students “mine the things that are in them” so that they can “hopefully recognize the things that they are good at.”
“Somebody may come into school with one objective,” he says, “like wanting to be an actor. But slowly, I can hopefully show them that, in addition to acting, they might have other skills, and show them how to bring those skills together to create a career in the theater versus just the dream of working in the theater.”
David knows both of these things intimately. In addition to his academic life at URI, where he teaches in the design track of the University’s BFA program, he is a resident designer at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, where he’s been designing costumes since the group’s ﬁrst production. He says that his teaching life has enriched his (other) working life and vice versa; it’s no doubt enriched the lives of his students, too, who get an intimate audience with a working designer. But that doesn’t mean he approaches both tasks on the same wavelength, he says, noting that the students and their experience are his ﬁrst priority when it comes to teaching, whereas his design duties at the Gamm are more about bringing about his own vision.
“At URI, when I’m designing a show, everything has to be somewhat transparent – the costume shop manager and I are working with the students to help them not just create my vision of the play, but to help them gather skill so that they can become better at what they do,” he says.
It’s clear from talking to David that he enjoys building connections. When he speaks of his love of costume design, speciﬁcally, and the theater in general, he’s quick to mention his respect for and interest in history, in the collaboration that happens between the facts and the ﬁction in context on stage. In the beginning stages of teaching at URI, he says what really showed him that teaching would be a good ﬁt for him was teaching Costume and Fashion History and seeing the light bulbs go on for his students in the room: “every teacher enjoys that moment when you make a nearly synaptic connection in their mind,” he says.
The big production at the University this spring is Chicago, which will be the second production designed by David this year. Now this is a production with history. “You get excited, but you know people are going to compare you to things that you won’t necessarily be able to live up to. So it’s going to be challenging and frustrating,” he says.
But the resuscitation of stories – particularly well-loved stories – is an inevitable facet of creating work for the stage. And with this production, David and his students are in the process of navigating how to present the play in a different enough light as to be “hopefully inspiring and interesting and exciting.” It’s still early in the process, but so far, for David and his classes, it’s involved looking at period costumes (around the 1920s), which present their own unique challenges. “The 1920s don’t lend themselves well to Bob Fosse choreography,” David says, chuckling, “which is all about the body. In the ‘20s, there was a rejection of the natural body in a lot of ways.”
After David ﬁnishes with the design process, he’ll then work with the costume shop manager, who also works with students to create patterns and the ﬁnal costumes. Once in production, a student wardrobe supervisor will manage the entirety of the show, managing quick changes and organization, joined by students managing wigs and makeup. Just a brief survey of the hands it takes to bring a production like this to fruition makes it quite clear that David was right: there are indeed as many roles as there are those who have talents beyond the spotlight. See Chicago April 17-19, 24-26 at 7:30 pm, or April 27 at 3 pm. Robert E. Will Theatre, University of Rhode Island. Get tickets here or 401-874-5843.