Faculty Feature: Nancy Leary, Costume Design and Production

Nancy Leary, Assistant Professor, Costume Design and Production at BU CFA School of Theatre, and award-winning costume designer whose visionary work for opera and theater spans several decades and numerous stages shares with CFA what makes BU’s Costume Production MFA program unique from other programs. Leary dives into how the program works, the opportunities available within BU and across theatre companies in Boston, and the power of a strong alumni network.

CFA: How would you describe the BU CFA Costume Production MFA program?

Nancy Leary: When Costume Production students graduate they should be able to look at any type of rendering, technical or abstract, and be able to dissect, understand and apply the skills and knowledge they have learned in order to create a three-dimensional version of the painting or sketch. This application includes understanding primary research, applying flat patterning and draping skills, and most importantly using an individual artistic perspective.

What level of skills should students bring to the program?

The level of skill required varies because I look at the interests and experience of the applicant as a whole. Some students come with an undergraduate degree in costuming and others may have limited skills but a burning desire to be part of a community of theatre makers through the practice of creating costumes. Typically most applicants have theatre bachelor’s degrees.

When students say: “I like going to plays and I’m more literary than numerate?” Is that bad? In other words, if someone says, “I love math.” Is that a good thing?

It doesn’t really matter. The way the program works is that you can be more mathematical if you want to be more two-dimensional in your approach. If you want to be three-dimensional, you need to be more artistic. The math component tends to be logical and practical, however, the artistic element will shape the outcome. You can tell the difference between someone who wants a degree in this as a technician from others who want to explore an art form. You can see this transpire in the final product on stage.

Your students are not always the makers of the costumes, but are the ones explaining how to make them?

They can be. They work as a team. Our students can work at all levels of the process. They can be assigned to be the shop foreman, meaning going to all the meetings, understanding what’s happening in design and production meetings, and corralling everyone. That’s a big responsibility. Other students work to create the patterning as drapers, who then pass along their work to first hands who in turn help guide stitchers.

Knowing there’s a lot of competition in Boston, are there opportunities for grad students to get into other arts organizations outside of BU?

There’s more opportunity here. Yes, there’s more competition but I hope that the people we bring into the program will learn from each other as well. The arts are always going to be tricky. You can go to a rural university and be just that — if that’s all you want. We’re offering more opportunities than that, so I guess it’s an individual choice about what kind of artist you want to be. Do you want to be a leader — we want those students. Or, do you want to do your own thing? Theatre is so interactive with communities. The theatre community is larger than that [regional theatre] and if you don’t want to explore that, I don’t know why you do it in the first place. We’re so close to New York. So many of our graduates go down there and they’re doing really well. Some stay here and they’re also doing really well.

Boston or New York City for costume production/design programs?

If a student wants to be in New York, then they should go there. They’ll meet more people quickly there but while it may take a little longer here, they’ll meet them here, too. There aren’t any production/design programs like BU’s in New York. There are design programs but not a broader curriculum like ours. There are students who are not comfortable with being in New York until they become familiar with the city.

Is there something to be said for less competition – you might be able to get into smaller theatre companies here?

Yes. And work your way up, get experience. Yes, absolutely. Our students like the network we’ve created in Boston and they go out and do things at Boston Ballet, American Repertory Theater, The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston Conservatory, Boston Lyric Opera, New Repertory Theatre, and Wheelock Family Theatre which is affiliated with BU. We also have students from New York who choose to come here.

Are your graduates successful at getting jobs in the field?

Always. It’s harder in design because you’re looking at getting jobs here and there, piecing it together. I have Production students at the New York City Ballet, one running his own business in New York and doing really well. Another at Santa Fe Opera. Our graduates usually don’t have a problem. A Production graduate gets hired by the season, while a designer gets hired by the show. So, it can be easier for Production grads but sometimes Design grads take draping jobs, and run shops. They find that that’s more what they want to do. We provide learning in both those areas — Production and Design. So, they get a good sense of both areas (while they’re in the program.)

What makes BU’s Costume Production program distinctive?

The program is not just theoretical. Our students work on productions — including plays, musicals, operas, movement pieces, and so on. Our curriculum is different; it’s a broader curriculum. It covers not only draping but a gamut of tailoring and crafts which other programs may lack. A student will be able to produce in either draping, tailoring, or crafts when they graduate. We also incorporate the history of dress in the production classes. The classes focus on flat-patterning and draping, but you’re also getting the important history component. So students are not just putting numbers together and making patterns.

Also, production students take classes with all other grad departments as well as with design students. Many schools separate areas, which tend to compartmentalize the experience. We also have state-of-the-art facilities and a variety of people teaching in the program who are also working in the professional world. We don’t offer just one point of view; we have several points of view within the parameters of our curriculum. That is valuable.

BU grads can be found working in New York, Los Angeles, etc. Do you find that students utilize the BU alumni network?

I meet with a lot of alums in New York because I work back and forth (from Boston to New York). It’s a network that I am keeping up with. They are taking people (our graduates) in and helping them get jobs. They all help each other. If you’re talented and passionate, it’s easy to connect you to people who can help.

At one point, at the New York City Ballet, we had all BU graduates in the shop doing crafts, tailoring, and draping.

This interview was conducted by Mark Krone, Assistant Director of Graduate Affairs from CFA’s Graduate Affairs Office. The office serves as a resource for CFA graduate students and prospective students. In his role, Mark communicates with graduate applicants and current students, sharing resources available at BU and CFA and things to do around Boston. Mark also serves on the board of the History Project, the historical archive for LGBTQ Boston. 

Costume Production at BU

BU’s BFA and MFA programs in Costume Production encourage students to strengthen their artistic expression, communication, and production skills through hands-on, mentored production experiences within a wide range of theatrical opportunities and classroom instruction. Through creative collaborations with designers, actors, and directors, students apply both artistic and practical approaches to the creation of costumes in various genres. 

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