When Aly Amidei (Greaves) ’97 came to Knox, she had no idea she would become a full time costume designer.
“I had no intention of doing theater,” Amidei said. She was not sure of what she wanted to major in, although she considered art, biology and English. She contemplated combining these loves by becoming a medical illustrator but was unsure of her final career path.
Everything changed her freshman year when her resident assistant (RA), Shannin Strom, who worked in the theater costume shop, learned Amidei could sew. Amidei’s mother taught her to sew when she was small, and she had been sewing ever since, but even though Amidei made her own prom dress, she never thought her sewing skills could get her a job.
Her RA “dragged” Amidei to the costume shop and made her apply for a position. Amidei never left.
“Once I got in the costume shop, I realized it was perfect for me,” she said. She is still grateful for her RA’s enthusiasm.
“I owe my career to her,” Amidei said.
She found out her new job combined all the things she loved and everything she had considered studying. Costume design appealed to her love of art. It also made her think of new ways to use materials and think creatively, like she would have if she had gone into the sciences. Costume design also requires the research and careful reading and interpretation encouraged in literature classes.
A new interest
After that, Amidei got into the Knox theater scene. She majored in theatre, acted in main stage and student-produced plays and participated in the Knox Repertory Theatre term.
After Amidei graduated from Knox, she thought she might teach theater, so she attended Carnegie-Mellon for her graduate studies. After that, she went into theater.
“I thought I had a lot of skills the other grad students didn’t have,” Amidei said. “I could have gone to Chicago right away.”
Amidei added that she was glad she went to graduate school, since it gave her a few years to “ferment” and hone her vision.
If someone wants to get work as a theater technician, she said, the key is to move to a theater town (like Chicago) and get his or her name out there.
“Start volunteering. You’ll get hired,” she said. Since the theater community is small, even if the company an aspiring tech worked for does not hire them, another theater might see their work and want to hire them.
She also encouraged students to get in touch with alumni who can help them get their feet in the door. That being said, she warns students not to “screw over your alumni when you call.” In the tiny world of theater, a job badly done hurts both the aspiring worker and the alumni who recommended them.
“It will come back to haunt you,” Amidei said.
Once a person starts doing good work in theater, Amidei said, the jobs accumulate like “a big old snowball rolling down the hill.”
“I’ve only had to show my portfolio four times,” she said, “and this is my twelfth year working in Chicago.”
That does not mean that everything is easy in the life of costume design. She advises aspiring costume designers to know how to do a little bit of everything, since in her career she’s done everything from Foley work to making wedding dresses.
“That’s the great thing about Chicago theater,” Amidei said. “You don’t have to get pigeonholed.”
The creative process
Although a few costume designers have teams of seamstresses to carry out their visions, Amidei said most costume designers have to “be able to sew on your own snaps.”
These days, Amidei works full time as the costume and make-up design coordinator for the College of DuPage. She also does costume design for the StrawDog Theatre and is the artistic director for the WildClaw Theatre, a company focused on horror plays.
Most costume design starts, as all theater does, with a script. When Amidei receives a script, she will read it a couple of times. The first time she reads it, she simply reads it as a story. The second time, she looks through more critically to find the themes and ideas in the play. Then she reads it a third time for specific details she needs to work into costumes — for example, she would note if there is a mention of a character wearing glasses or a particular color of shirt, so she could work it into her costuming plans.
Sometimes, Amidei can start working on a play before the script is finished, which means she gets to work with the writer as it is being written. Amidei said this is one of her favorite kinds of plays, since she “can shape the final art object.”
The next stage of a production is research. Amidei will look up both the play’s historical context and historical setting — which are not necessarily the same thing — to inform her designs.
This stage of her designs has become much easier since she left Knox, thanks to the rise of the Internet. While she was in school, Amidei found herself using the same books over and over again, but now she has access to an entire world of information.
This is a special challenge for adaptations of classic works, like Amidei’s recent work on Lifeline’s production of “Watership Down.” She enjoys the challenge of working with audience expectation.
“You have to surprise them,” Amidei said. At the same time, however, an adaptation should “help enhance their memory of what the story was like when they read it.”
Amidei also speaks with the director to get a better idea of his or her vision for the play and the actors to see how they will be portraying their character.
“I like to be pretty open to the actors’ ideas,” Amidei said, although she admits that this is not always possible, since “some people have an agenda.”
In cases like these, for example, an actor playing a dowdy character might try to convince Amidei to design a sexier costume. Amidei always defers to the director and the script.
Finally, Amidei starts drawing. While she does not usually look at other theater’s productions of the same play, she will happily “pull, borrow and steal” aspects she likes from her research to enrich her designs.
During Amidei’s phone interview, she was working in her costume shop at DuPage. From where she was standing, she could see a feather boa, a monster costume on one of the forms and six students sewing on snaps.
Amidei said if her life had gone differently, she could have been in a lab instead of a costume shop, but she’s glad it didn’t end up that way.
“This is so much better,” she said.