Kirsten Walsh ’18 (Theatre Arts – Design and Technology), of Tannersville, N.Y., was named among the prize winners at the 2018 United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) Design Expo, for costume designs for SUNY New Paltz’s October 2017 staging of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
As one of 15 winners chosen from among a field of more than 150 (which included not only students but also educators and working professionals), Walsh presented her work at the expo and will publish it in an upcoming issue of the industry journal, “Theatre Design & Technology,” both major achievements for an early-career designer.
“The USITT design expo was an incredible opportunity to present my work alongside other students and working professionals,” Walsh said. “I was able to look back on the work I had done, and learn about the process of other designers from various areas of theatre. I feel very fortunate to get to represent the SUNY New Paltz Theatre Department as one of the winners.”
Walsh’s designs for “To Kill a Mockingbird” began with an Undergraduate Research Experience supported through the Office of Academic Affairs, which enables New Paltz students to conduct original, faculty-mentored scholarship.
For those outside the theatre profession, costume design may not immediately spring to mind as “research,” but a great deal of study goes into the process of developing garments for a realistic, period-appropriate production such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Research is vital to costume design, not only for gathering visual inspiration, but because the social, political and economic circumstances of the play’s setting inform the clothing of each character,” Walsh said.
“The process of costume design includes historic research, collaboration with an artistic team, creating illustrations and image collages, sourcing and purchasing fabrics, shopping for vintage clothing, attending production meetings and rehearsals and fitting performers, among many other tasks,” added Associate Professor Andrea Varga, Walsh’s faculty mentor.
“It is extremely labor intensive for a full-time student, and Kirsten did a particularly excellent job of balancing all of the production needs with her high academic achievement as a student.”
In addition to sound research, successful costume design also requires collaboration with nearly all members of a production’s cast and crew. Walsh credited the structure of the Department of Theatre Arts and the Design & Technology concentration with facilitating this kind of teamwork.
“Because we have a BA program, students are offered a great deal of flexibility in their curriculum, and can tailor it to their interests without being strictly involved with one area of theatre production,” she said. “It gives us a well-rounded education and an appreciation for the work done in each department. It helps that we have an incredible faculty that are all very experienced in our industry.”
In the case of “Mockingbird,” Walsh worked closely with the production’s director, Assistant Professor Catherine Doherty, to develop a visual style of “muted complimentary colors,” which Walsh said was intended to achieve a “sepia overtone for the production design, while also metaphorically representing the moral division of the town’s residents.”
The approach paid off, as “To Kill a Mockingbird” sold out nearly every on-campus performance, and Walsh’s work was singled out for recognition by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, the leading international organization for the profession.
The experience helped Walsh earn a summer internship in costume crafts at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., and she will again work with Doherty as a designer for Mainstage Production’s presentation of “Into the Woods” this November.