Jeni Schaefer is the director of design for Virginia Stage Company. Let’s meet her and learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at the Wells Theatre.
TFP: What is your background in the theatre?
JS: I have been doing theatre all my life, but I started as a performer. When I was an undergrad at Wichita State University, I had to take intro courses in all tech departments, and the costume design professor saw I had a talent for design. The university’s theatre department offered to create a graduate program so I could obtain a master’s degree in costume design, and I’ve been designing now for 23 years both locally and across the country.
TFP: Why did you choose to become a costume designer?
JS: I loved the history of fashion and how the silhouettes evoke not only a place in time but emotion and character. Clothes tell the viewer a lot about a person—how they are feeling, where they are going, what they are doing. I get to dive into the character development as much as an actor does and help the actor find that special something that helps them embody the character when they step into that person’s shoes, pun intended.
TFP: What does your typical workday look like?
JS: I get to play dress-up every day! It’s the absolute best job in the world! I spend time researching, drawing, and building the looks (clothes) and styling wigs. A lot goes into one look—not only what the audience sees but structure underneath, how to construct the garments for quick changes, how the actor needs to move in the scene, and smaller details like trims, jewelry, and shoes. Everything has to be considered.
TFP: What are some of the challenges you face when designing costumes for a new show?
JS: I don’t look at the work as challenging. It’s an adventure! Every show is a new adventure, and anything is possible. No two shows are ever alike, so I jump in with both feet ready to help navigate and collaborate whatever comes up.
TFP: Can you describe what you consider to be the most beautiful costume you ever designed?
JS: Oh no! I don’t have just one costume in mind. For me it’s an entire show. My job is the whole picture and how everyone looks together up on that stage. I have several favorites based on the experience in creating it and how cohesive the entire design was through every department. I collaborate with other designers as well as actors to bring the director’s vision to life. A few of my favorites were The Wiz, Matilda, Sense and Sensibility, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hobbit, and A Merry Little Christmas Carol.
TFP: Can you tell us a little bit about the costuming for Virginia Stage Company’s current production?
JS: I have been designing A Christmas Carol for years, and I truly love this story. But designing this adaptation was the most rewarding for me personally. The playwright, Mark Shanahan wrote this adaptation for The Virginia Stage Company and our community. It was important to him that we embrace the beauty of our theatre and the history—dare I say, the spirits within our walls.
The Wells Theatre has been my home for 21 years, so being able to design with her in mind was an honor, and for the costuming, I wanted to celebrate her history. A Christmas Carol is generally set in a Victorian silhouette for the “Present” day look. I begin our journey with clothes in 1913 Norfolk, when the theatre was built, so it’s not until Scrooge visits the past that we see that Victorian silhouette. This production is also a much smaller cast. Seven actors in the eight-person cast play all the characters, so I have created looks that can change quickly from one character to the next by adding a piece here and removing a piece there. Sometimes the actors have to not only switch characters but also genders, so finding ways to make that shift quickly and effectively is the adventure this time around.
TFP: Have you ever had a costume mishap?
JS: Oh, sometimes pants may rip and zippers break, but I have an amazing backstage wardrobe team that can fix and pivot quickly so the actors don’t miss a beat.
TFP: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in the arts?
JS: Being an artist is rewarding and fulfilling work, not easy work. Find joy in all the moments, collaborate with other artists, and never forget to Yes/And.
TFP: How can parents help their children develop a love for the arts?
JS: Be supportive. Find avenues to help foster their talents. The arts are essential to our communities, and your artist feels that in their soul more than you realize.
For more information, please visit www.vastage.org