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Costume designer featured as artist in residence

March 24, 2010 By Gwen Evans

There’s no denying that clothes say volumes about the person wearing them. This is true, too, on the stage. Danny Zuko wouldn’t be Danny Zuko in chinos and a Pat Boone tennis sweater. Not at all a fierce and rebellious greaser. Eliza Doolittle transforms from shabby rags to high-society sophistication in “My Fair Lady,” a mirror of her internal journey and status in society. And try to imagine the cast of “Cats” wearing anything but their furry unitards. Impossible.

Deb Dryden (left), costume designer and textile artist currently serving as an artist in residence in the Department of Theatre and Drama, discusses techniques of fabric painting with student Sydney Krieger in her Textile Painting and Dyeing for Theatrical Design class in Vilas Hall.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Costume designers are integral to helping the audience get acquainted with the characters, without dialogue. They have to inform and sometimes dazzle, but not take the audience’s focus off the performances.

Deborah Mitchell Dryden, the UW–Madison Arts Institute’s current artist in residence, knows how to meet those demands. She has designed costumes for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 30 seasons, and has been the resident costume designer there since 1997. She is professor emerita at the University of California, San Diego, where she had an extended teaching career.

She has also designed costumes for many illustrious theaters, including the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, the La Jolla Playhouse, the Old Globe Theatre, the Alley Theatre in Houston, the Kennedy Center and the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre.

But Dryden doesn’t just cut fabric off the bolt to be sewn into costumes; she creates fabrics for her costumes using paints and dyes to create just the right nuance. Her fabric designs have been shown nationwide, including the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Students in the Textile Painting and Dyeing for Theatrical Design class work on applying fabric dyes and paints to swatches of fabric.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Most recently, her work was included in the exhibit “Curtain Call: Celebrating a Century of Women Designing for Live Performance” at the New York Public Library in Lincoln Center. Her book, “Fabric Painting and Dyeing for the Theatre” is an authoritative source on techniques in her field.

During her residency, the 19 students in her class, Textile Painting and Dyeing for Theatrical Design, are learning traditional and improvisational techniques. They are also getting hands-on experience in transforming textiles for use in costumes and other theatrical designs from a respected and experienced professional.

The students represent a variety of majors: theater (of course), but there are also students from design studies, opera, history and art. “I want to provide them with a toolbox of dyeing information and techniques they can use in the future. I also want them to get a better sense of what a theater designer or dyer uses so they can adapt what they’ve learned to their own artistic use,” says Dryden.

Dryden is pleased with her students’ progress. “I’m gratified by the creativity and commitment of the students. I’m throwing a lot at them and they’ve produced excellent work,” says Dryden.

Dryden is no newcomer to Madison. She was raised here and earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees on campus. She also grew up exposed to the theater: Her father, Ronald Mitchell, was head of the university’s theater. The performance space in Vilas Hall bears his name.

Still, her residency is no walk down memory lane. “I didn’t work in Vilas Hall. We were in the Union near the Hoofers area. Performances were in the Union Theater or Compass Theater on University Avenue,” says Dryden. “So a lot is familiar and a lot is foreign.”

Despite her impressive resume, forget any stereotypes of a self-absorbed artist; she actually thrives on collaboration. “I wanted to do this residency because it is so interdisciplinary. I’ve always believed in the power of sharing information,” says Dryden. “I like to work with the director and actor to help develop a role. I can respond to them. It’s a conversation in three dimensions.”

Upcoming events

In addition to teaching a class during her residency, Dryden is also designing costumes for University Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim’s popular (and twisted) mash-up of fairy tales. Characters in the play include a giant and a witch, less-than-charming princes, Cinderella, Rapunzel and other standards from fairy tales.

Dryden says she is staying close to the fairy tale environment to inspire her designs and won’t pick a favorite character from the play, even when pressed. “All of them are fun in their own way,” she says.

A special exhibit of Dryden’s costuming work will be on display in the Mitchell Theatre lobby, with an opening reception on the evening of Thursday, April 22. Dryden will also give a public lecture about her work and the process of creating costumes for the show at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 25, in the Mitchell Theatre.

Performance dates for “Into the Woods” are April 16–18, 22–25, 29–30 and May 1 in the Mitchell Theatre, Vilas Hall. Tickets are available at the University Theatre and Union Theater box offices, by calling 265-ARTS (2787), or online at