Hollywood costume designer offers advice to UA Little Rock students

Students in UA Little Rock’s Department of Theater Arts and Dance got an inside scoop on what it takes to be a professional costume designer from UA Little Rock graduate Jacqueline Saint Anne, who is an Emmy Award winning costume designer and president emeritus of the Costume Designers Guild.

Saint Anne has worked as a costume designer in theater and film now for nearly 50 years. Her films include “Seeing Other People,” “Lady in White,” “Normal Life,” and “Pippi Longstocking” while television credits include “Arli$$,” “Columbo,” “Quantum Leap,” “Webster,” and “Sliders.” She’s worked on more than 100 Movies of the Week and miniseries including “An American Story,” “Fatal Vision,” “Max and Helen,” and the “Munsters.” She also teaches at the Los Angeles-based Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she is the creative director the for film and TV costume design.

A resident of West Hollywood now, Saint Anne returned to Arkansas over the Thanksgiving holiday to visit her sister in DeWitt. On Monday, Nov. 26, before she returned home, she led a master class for theater and dance students in the Haislip Theatre in UA Little Rock’s Center for Performing Arts, where she first got her start in costume design as a student at UA Little Rock in the 1960s.

Saint Anne remembered the theater’s closet of costumes that she remade over and over again.

“Because I had some sewing skills, that made me the the costumer,” she said.

At that time, she wasn’t planning on a career in design. She was a biology major and was on a pre-med track that her parents wanted for her.

“The great thing about a university education is that you become educated about what’s around you,” she said.

She earned a Bachelor of Science but never made it to medical school. Instead she went to the University of Miami for a master’s degree in costume design. Her first job out of college took her to Grand Ledge, Michigan, where she worked the summer at the Boars Head Theater and costumed 12 shows in 13 weeks.

The hectic pace was valuable training. It’s where she learned to work within a budget and on tight deadlines, developed her work ethic, and started making a reputation for herself.

She returned for three more summers and taught theater at State University of New York’s Auburn campus the rest of the time.

After four years, she returned to Miami and became entrenched in theater costume design. She turned down several offers to work on films before she finally said yes to “Shock Waves,” a 1977 horror film (starring Peter Cushing) about underwater Nazi zombies.

“They presented unique costuming challenges,” Saint Anne said. “The uniforms couldn’t be made of wool because of the water. Filming would go on for months, so the costumes had to hold up and maintain color.”

Students were interested in how Saint Anne crossed over from theater into film.

“The way a costumer succeeds is having a sense of the medium in which they are working,” she told them. “The most important thing in theater is the audience. I feel my success comes from my ability to see what my audience sees, so if it’s a big opera house or a small intimate stage, or film being shot on HD or 35mm, there are differences in the communication that I’m making with my audience.”

She also gave the students practical advice – from having a label for their costumes to having a website they can show to clients on their phone – to  professional advice on working with difficult people, collaborating with set designers and directors, and staying current with industry trends.

“It was nice to hear her talk about the difference between theater and film projects,” said Kat Hall, a senior design student who has worked on both theater and film projects and hopes to work as a wardrobe supervisor at a regional theater after graduation.

Saint Anne’s advice was also helpful for senior dance major Emily Shellabarger, who is taking a course in flat patterning and drafting this semester from UA Little Rock costume shop manager Don Bolinger.

Unlike the students, Saint Anne learned stitching skills on her own. A self-described “Air Force brat,” she was was born in Panama and moved around a lot growing up.

“One of the fortunate places I lived was Paris,” she said. As a teen, she saved up money to buy fabric, and her mother showed her how to thread her sewing machine.

“I would go to design shops in Paris and look at clothes,” she said. “Then I’d go home and try to figure out how to make them. I taught myself pattern making. My skills were not taught to me. They were intuitive, the result of trial and error, just wanting to know how things were made and having curiosity about how things are put together.”

Early on in her career, while working on “Little Mary Sunshine,” Saint Anne developed a disciplined approach to how she works, and she’s stuck with it ever since.

“I was still sewing a piece for Act 2, after the Act 1 curtain went up,” she recalled. “I was physically destroyed. I said I will never do this again. And fortunately, I haven’t. I’m in my 48th year as costume designer. I would not be able to do that without taking care of myself and knowing what I need. Some people thrive in chaos. That’s not me. To this day, I finish anything I’m working on three to four days before opening, so that if I need to change something, I have the time and clarity to do it.

“My preparation is never last minute,” she said. “If I’m going to do an all-nighter, it’s going to be a week before the show. It won’t be the night before because that makes me feel out of control.”

For the past 13 years, Saint Anne has designed mainly for opera. She doesn’t do modern TV projects anymore, prefers instead to costume period pieces or fantasy.

She also offered this nugget of advice to young people just starting out:

“At a certain place, when you are the master of your craft, you have little forbearance for people who are ignorant or rude,” she said. “It’s important you learn how to be considerate and kind. Your collaborators – and your competition – will be with you your entire career.”

 

Top Right Photo: Costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne greets freshman theater student Kaitlynn Mitchell after a master class in Haislip Theatre.

Above: Costumer designer and UA Little Rock graduate Jacqueline Saint Anne poses for a group photo with students, faculty and staff in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.

 

 

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