Dennita Sewell Takes The Stage

Valley fashion authority designs costumes for Southwest Shakespeare Company

Southwest Shakespeare Company presents its upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Feb. 21 – March 7 at Mesa Arts Center.

Dennita Sewell, formerly known as The Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design at Phoenix Art Museum, served as costume designer on this production. Shakespeare’s fantastical romantic comedy filled with lovers, dreamers, fairies, magic and laughter offered a great source of inspiration. She answered a few questions below.

Sewell currently leads the new fashion degree program in the School of Art at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The first-of-its-kind degree program for ASU offers a fashion focus on topics ranging from textiles to wearable technology to merchandising.

Dennita Sewell

How did this collaboration with Southwest Shakespeare Company happen?

The collaboration was fostered through Mary Way, executive director of Southwest Shakespeare Company. Over the years, we have had many really fun conversations about the fashion exhibitions at Phoenix Art Museum—especially Hollywood Costume and costumes generally. A couple years ago, Mary hosted a lecture with Jane Greenwood, my mentor and professor at the Yale School of Drama. All of these experiences naturally evolved into a conversation about designing costumes for one of the productions at Southwest Shakespeare Company. I am really enjoying the process and being involved with the dedicated group at Southwest Shakespeare Company. The strong passion theater professionals have for their craft evokes true admiration for the spirit of collaboration. Everyone involved in the production has tremendous respect for the creative project and has such fun in rehearsals.

Will it happen again?

As for the future, the project has reignited my love of theater and strengthened my appreciation of Southwest Shakespeare Company’s mission and breadth of activities that serve the community. They rotate creative participants to keep their programming active and varied, but I would look forward to working with them again.

Have you encountered any specific challenges during the design process?

Shakespeare’s play is set in Athens, Greece. The director of this production, Louis Farber, selected modern Athens, Vermont, as the location. So, all of my fashion magazines were pushed to the side of my worktable and I began looking at the Vermont Country Store and Duluth Trading catalogs. I researched New England clothing manufacturers and designers, photographs of people at county fairs, and artists renderings of the people and place to gain a sense of their world and establish a color palette. It had been a long time since I had done costume sketches—about 30 years now.

To start the project, I bought a new set of colored pencils and a new pad of drawing paper. There was a warmup period, but I had a really fun time. The end goal of the drawings is not to “make art,” but drawing is the real design process. It’s how you think the ideas through—how you create. In the end, even though I haven’t been practicing my drawing over that last few years, it felt easier. The hands-on experience with clothes I have gained over the last 30 years helped me draw my ideas with greater freedom. Because the production is modern, but with a fantasy element, parts of the costumes are shopped and part of them are made. I have been all over the Valley at a wide diversity of stores to shop for the costumes. It was very interesting to see what is out there—it felt like field research for teaching my contemporary fashion class.

How different is theater costume design compared to fashion design?

This is such an interesting area to think about. In essence, a costume design is the result of a collaborative vision that the designer has with the script, the director and the actor/actress. It is guided by the vision for the production set by the director. Fashion designers are guided by the cultural zeitgeist and create their own vision of what that is. Fashion serves a consumer base and a costume is for a character. They are two unique fields but have shared interests. —Interview by Perrine Adams

Fabric for Oberon’s costume (left) and fabric for the fairies (right)

PHOTOS (at top and bottom): Sewell’s renderings of costumes (Fairies; Mechanicals; and Fairy King Oberon, Queen Titania, and Puck). COURTESY SOUTHWEST SHAKESPEARE COMPANY

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