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Shirley Pierson
Theatre arts alumna puts her education to work—one step at a time

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Shirley Pierson

"Take advantage of all the opportunities USD provides. Seek out and propose new learning opportunities and experiences with your USD faculty. They will listen, welcome and help you. I am proof of that!"

Shirley Pierson

Shirley Pierson designs costumes for a living, but her work is more than costumes and props. The 2006 theatre arts grad uses her liberal arts background every time she begins a project. Built on historical research as well as architectural and sociological inspirations, Pierson's designs are a testament to the breadth of her academic studies.

How did your theatre arts degree prepare you for a career in costume design?

Even though I learned to sew as a young child, and always had a flare for creating things, I believe that formal education and training is key to developing a career in costume design. My theatre arts degree from the University of San Diego provided me with a foundation in theatrical practice and theory that allowed me to enter the theatre community and advance through a graduate degree with a confidence that I rarely encounter in other young theatre artisans. It was not simply USD's sound classroom academics that planted this seed of confidence in my ability; rather, it was the additional collaborative, hands-on experiences and interactions with USD's faculty on campus and in their professional work in the theatre community that nurtured my confidence. Along with of the intimate size of the theatre department, the ordinary limited academic production funds, and the invaluable MFA acting program with The Old Globe, my academic experience at USD prepared me to think and design critically, creatively and collaboratively.

You've designed costumes for such visually striking shows as "Cabaret" and "Sweeney Todd." How do you start the process of design for a given show?

Designing a show always begins with the text itself, the playwright's words. Beyond reading and understanding the text, there are numerous ways to approach developing and actualizing a costume design. Generally the designers—scenic, lighting, sound and costume—meet with the director to formulate the concepts and develop moods that will support the play's themes. Once we have collaboratively chosen the concept and mood, my work begins with research—lots of research. Next to seeing the final product on stage, doing research for a design is my favorite aspect of designing. I believe that extensive research is necessary to design successfully; so much that it becomes a way of life for me as an artist.

Shirley Pierson

"I need to have an understanding of the world the character and production inhabits. Hence, lots of research, some historical—background literature, history, art, architecture, clothing, posture and movement of the time, cultural customs, environment, music—everything from the period of the play, or the period chosen for the production."

Shirley Pierson

What kind of research is necessary? How do you take what you've learned and construct a successful set of designs?

A successful costume is one that aids the actor in defining the character while also supporting the development of the concept for the entire production. This means I need to have an understanding of the world the character and production inhabits. Hence, lots of research—background literature, history, art, architecture, clothing, posture and movement of the time, cultural customs, environment, music—everything from the period of the play, or the period chosen for the production. And then inspirational research—visiting museums, shopping, concerts, other plays, textiles, movies, nature—just about anything can become my inspirational research and spark creative energy into a design for me.

Before designing the garments, I need to analyze the play: How many costumes are needed for each character? What are the given things (those the text describes or speaks to) needed for each character? And what does the costume need to do? This leads to many charts and lots of paperwork.

With research and paperwork in hand, I begin to develop some costume concepts or looks, the preliminary designs. I take these back to the director and design team for feedback and to be sure the designs will work in tandem with the other design aspects of the show; the set and lights in particular. From here the actual designs are chosen, and shopping, sewing, searching through rental stocks and personal stocks of garments begins, followed with fittings, dying, altering, crafting, and what ever else it takes to get the costume on the stage.

It sounds like yours is a calling for the true liberal artist! Your current project, "Little Shop of Horrors," has been extended through Oct. 2 at the Cygnet Theatre. What was your approach for the design?

As a team under Sean Murray's direction, we strive to create our own "Cygnet Theatre" look to any production we do, while still understanding that each show generally has its icons that the theatre patron plans to see when they invest in a ticket for the production. Many musical theatre productions of "Little Shop of Horrors" are filled with brightly colored, comedic icons. Wanting to explore more than this, the team created a production design concept for Cygnet Theatre's Little Shop of Horrors inspired by Roger Corman's 1960 low budget black and white film, The Little Shop of Horrors and the image of a graphic novel. The bulk of the show, the set and clothing, is in gray-scale, with Audrey II plant puppets being the splash of color, just as one might see in a graphic novel.

This controlled, stylized color palette for the show provided a creative challenge. The gray-scale color environment established the mood for the production, but when everything is the same color, defining the character through costume must rely on design elements rather than color. My designing had to focus on pattern, texture and silhouette to distinguish characters.

Shirley Pierson

"My theatre arts degree from the University of San Diego provided me with a foundation in theatrical practice and theory that allowed me to enter the theatre community and advance through a graduate degree with a confidence that I rarely encounter in other young theatre artisans."

Shirley Pierson

I understand you sat on a discussion panel for USD's Project Runway Finale event. Tell us about that. How did you feel returning to your Alma Mater as a professional?

Returning to USD as a professional for USD's Project Runway Finale Event was an honor. I delighted in being part of a USD student/faculty interactive experience that brings the professional world into direct contact with the student's academic world. I was able to return a tiny bit of the confidence-building experience to my Alma Mater and its students, in the same way USD had given it to me when I was a student.

Any words of wisdom for undergraduates seeking careers in theatre design?

The life of an artisan in theatre, or other mediums, is not without its difficulties, discouragements and uncertainties, but if you know in your heart—and you will know in your heart—that theatre design is your passion and calling, never give up. Follow your heart. Take advantage of all the opportunities USD provides. Seek out and propose new learning opportunities and experiences with your USD faculty. They will listen, welcome and help you. I am proof of that!

- Anne Malinoski ‘11

Video: Shirley Pierson

Video: Shirley Pierson

"Along with of the intimate size of the theatre department, the ordinary limited academic production funds, and the invaluable MFA acting program with The Old Globe, my academic experience at USD prepared me to think and design critically, creatively and collaboratively."
- Shirley Pierson

Quick Facts

  • My favorite pattern design is the paisley, (I even named my daughter Paisley) so every show I design has at least one paisley in a costume somewhere.
  • I was a "glee club" member when I was in high school. And yes, I designed our costumes.
  • I get compliments, comments and questions about my glasses at least once a week. They are vintage, hand made for one Clarence Brown, that I found shopping at an antique market in London several years ago.
  • My garage is full. No, not with automobiles; it is filled with a collection of textiles.
  • I grew up on a farm in the Midwest and attended a one-room country parochial school.
  • I am an artist, a wife and a mother; my son is a video game character artist and my daughter is a writer and photographer.
  • Before following my passion in fashion/costume design, I was a registered nurse and met my husband while working as a camp nurse one summer in northern Minnesota.

Useful Links

www.kpbs.org/news/2011/mar/16/
costume-designs-cygnet-theaters-cabaret/

www.sandiego.edu/cas/art/program/
visual_arts.php

http://cygnettheatre.com/shows.php?show_id=56