Solveig Holthe Bygdnes og Eli Beate Vevang viser fram noen av sine kostymer.

Exam with unforeseen benefits

Studentene ved kostymedesign har samarbeidet med scenekunstfagene for å gjennomføre sine eksamener. Det er det blitt overraskende mange ringvirkninger av.The costume design students at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts are collaborating with the various scenographic disciplines in order to complete their exams. This has resulted in a surprising number of add-on benefits.

“It’s been a few years since we were all located together, and this is something we’re finally reaping the benefits of,” says Christina Lindgren, professor of costume design at the Design department. “For the first time, all three Bachelor’s students will take part in the theatrical productions as part of their exams.”

“The various disciplines are located only a few metres away from each other, and we share the same campus, so it makes all the sense in the world to cooperate,” she adds. “We want the costume design students to participate in the work being done by the scenographic disciplines.”

The collaboration also helps alleviate the various departmental budgets, although this is not the primary objective. It has been estimated that around 200,000 kroner has been saved this year because the Academies of Opera, Dance and Theatre have used the costume design students instead of employing off-campus services.

“In addition, the students establish contacts across the disciplinary divides and learn more,” she says. “There are many benefits that result from increased collaboration.”

Exams based on actual productions

This year’s project represents the most ambitious collaboration yet between the Design department and the Academies of Dance, Theatre and Opera. In previous years the final exam had largely been based on faux productions rather than actual, staged performances. But there are certain problems with creating costumes for a film, dance, opera or theatre performance that does not really exist. An imagined scenario is not as unpredictable and collaborative as when it really matters.

“You learn a lot when you don’t have to think up everything by yourself,” says Eli Beate Vevang, a Bachelor’s student who took her exam with costumes she designed for the operas Dialogues des carmélites and Faust, which were performed in May by the Bachelor’s students at the Academy of Opera.

“I collaborated with the directors and scenographers, and many things turned up during the process,” says Solveig Holthe Bygdnes, who graduated with the costumes she designed for the production of Quai Ouest, which the Bachelor’s students at the Academy of Theatre put on in February. “And I received tips and ideas from the other students involved in the production. It’s crucially important, really, to work on an actual production, both because it’s more fun and because you make connections for later. And you make it clear to future employers that we can see through an actual project.” Holthe Bygdnes’s costume concept for Quai Ouest took into account the two different groups in the play that were encountering one another at an abandoned harbour, where two upper-class people were entering the territory of a group of immigrants. While the former were decked out in exclusive suits, the members of the latter group wore fashionable dinner jackets that were turned inside out, so that the labels were visible. The costumes thereby helped to underscore the themes of the play.

Reading body language and transforming the actor

There are two basic strategies available in costume design: designing and sewing entirely new clothes, or getting hold of clothes that already exist. It was this latter strategy that Bachelor’s student Amalie Faye used when working with the final-year actors at the Academy of Theatre as they made three short films with the director Ole Giæver. These films were screened at Cinemateket in May. While working on the films Faye discovered the inherent power of choosing the right costume: one of the films was about a sporty tomboy who was to try on a dress for the first time, and as soon as the right dress was in place, the entire dynamics of the narrative changed.

“It was clear that the reason she was trying on this exact dress was that it reminded her of her friend, who she really wanted to look like,” Faye recalls.

For her work on the film she created entire wardrobes for the characters. As a result, her comprehensive design strategy helped the team survive the abrupt turn of events on the day of filming, when the temperature was 20 degrees rather than the forecast 10 degrees.

“I didn’t create a complete wardrobe for every single character, but it’s an advantage to do it this way,” Faye explains. “It allows me to get a handle on the character, even though not every item of clothing ends up getting used.”
The other two students designed the costumes themselves but had them sewn by a professional seamstress.

“I also tried out fatsuits on several of the actors during the rehearsal period,” Solveig Holthe Bygdnes adds. “And for some of them it worked out, while for others it didn’t add anything to the character. The point of fatsuits is that they change the actor’s centre of gravity and so also their body language.”

Reading body language and interpreting the characters as clothes is a good deal of what costume designing is about.

“It’s a great advantage working with other students here at school,” says Eli Beate Vevang. “For my part I’ve walked down the corridors and spied on the opera students and their body language.”

Her costume for Mephistopheles was directly inspired by the singer who was to embody the demonic figure, Emil Havold Naeshagen. The oversized fatsuit she made for him was to symbolise Mephistopheles “putting on” a human shape. The overweight male physique that was attached to the singer’s own body contrasted nicely with the feminine gestures he made every now and then.
“I could play off of the resulting contrast,” Vevang explains. “For Mephistopheles is supposed to act as the play’s ‘comic relief’.”

Costume design over time

Professional costume designers typically work on a given production over a long period of time. The costumes can take over a year to design and produce, and costume designers work in parallel on several productions at a time.

Likewise, this year the students have been able to dedicate themselves entirely to their individual assignments within the Bachelor’s project. This has provided hands-on, in-depth experience for the students and equipped them with tools for finding their way in the professional world when they graduate. The result is also that they pass their final exam.

Something happens when theatre, opera, dance and costume design students work together. They come from the same generation and understand one another’s codes and references. According to Professor Lindgren, it is a good thing that the students work so closely together.

“We teach the costume students that it’s not just the clothes themselves that makes the costume,” she explains. “The clothes are worn on a body that is dancing, singing or acting in some type of production. This is why a close dialogue and interaction is required until the costume design works.”

“The collaboration raises the costume designer’s competence, but also the competence of the dancers, singers and actors wearing the costumes,” she adds. “We cooperate with the teachers from the Academy of Theatre, the Academy of Opera and the Academy of Dance to make this possible. I should emphasise that these collaborations are the result of shared interests between the partners from the Design department and the Academies of Theatre, Opera and Dance. Complex schedules have to be coordinated. Every collaboration is based both on a desire for the students to learn and on hard work to make it happen.”

The project will be repeated with new students next year, and several collaborations are in the pipeline. But for the current crop of graduates, a professional career beckons.

“I’ve been admitted to the Master’s programme,” says Eli Beate Vevang, who plans to wait a year before continuing her education.

“I want to take my Master’s at the same time as a new class of directors and actors is enrolled,” she explains. “So I’ve applied for a deferral, so that I can follow them throughout their academic career.”