Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010

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In Character

In Character
Sabrina Notarfrancisco. Photo by Harold Shapiro

Costume designer Sabrina Notarfrancisco brings College theater productions to life

By Caroline Gransee ´09


Growing up near a military base in Berlin, Germany, during the Cold War, Sabrina Notarfrancisco loved attending the theater performances produced by the U.S. Army — not only to enjoy the plays but also to admire the costumes.

Her interest in fabrics, theater and history led her to study costume design at the University of Connecticut, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts.

She has been a costume designer at the Lincoln Amphitheatre in Indiana and UConn´s Connecticut Repertory Theater; the assistant designer for productions at the Signature Theatre in New York and the Connecticut Opera; and even a mask builder for productions of “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Curse of Sleepy Hollow.”

In 2004, she brought her extensive knowledge of costume history and her passion for design to Connecticut College, where she is a lecturer of theater, the costume designer for four theater productions each academic year, and the head of the College´s costume shop.

“The goal of the costume designer is to reveal character,” Notarfrancisco says.

When the theater department begins preparing for a production, even before auditions are held, she discusses
costume ideas with the director and the design team, conducts research and completes a character analysis for each character in the script.

When the actors come for their fittings, Notarfrancisco challenges them to seriously contemplate their roles.

“Some of the student actors do not completely understand their characters until they see their costumes, and the costumes frequently help the student actors analyze their roles,” she says. “During these discussions, I encourage the actors´ creative process by asking them about their character´s journey throughout the play.”

Kristin Hutchins ´12, who played Sister Mary James in the department´s fall performance of John Patrick Shanley´s “Doubt: A Parable,” says she understands the importance of a good costume.

“My nun´s habit was complete — the detail unbelievable. I had every element down to the specific number of rosary beads and a golden ring around my finger representing my commitment to God,” Hutchins says. “The student actors are extremely lucky to have the opportunity to act in professional-level costumes.”

Hutchins also works with Notarfrancisco as an assistant in her workshop. Along with Alicia Toldi ´12, Hutchins helps Notarfrancisco through the entire costume design process and last semester had the chance to lead the costume crew for a production of “The Tempest.”

“Sabrina´s vision was exquisite and complemented the vision of the director,” Hutchins says. “Designing for a show like this is certainly a challenge, but it was definitely rewarding to watch the process from conception to performance.”

Students in introductory acting and technical theater classes also get hands-on experience in costume design. Notarfrancisco works closely with them, teaching them to think critically about the historical and social context of costumes, as well as how to construct them from start to finish. Each theater major then gets the opportunity to work on the production team for a performance.

“I encourage my more experienced shop assistants to teach my newer students techniques that they have mastered,” Notarfrancisco says. “I´m almost always in the shop when this takes place, so I can offer support when needed.”

Notarfrancisco stresses the importance of creating quality costumes.

“I encourage all students to build garments properly and neatly, even if it means ripping out an entire seam and starting over if errors were made,” she says.

But she also understands time and budget constraints and teaches her students how to use the shop´s limited materials effectively.

This hands-on training shows the students that costume design is a fine art that is comparable to scenic, lighting and sound design.

“The perception that the costume designer is a ´go-to girl´ who sews clothes and throws outfits together can be a difficult stereotype to break,” Notarfrancisco says. “It pleases me to know that our acting and directing students will know how to behave appropriately when employed by a professional theater.”


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