UT Knoxville employs more than 10,000 people on a campus that serves nearly 30,000 students. This small city is home to a number of rarely seen spaces and interesting people in a wide range of quirky and unique jobs. Volunteers at Work, a Q&A portrait series, seeks to introduce our campus to the people behind the scenes and the interesting spaces where they work.
Bill Black, Professor and Associate Head of Theatre
Roles and responsibilities: As a costume designer, I assist in telling the story of a play by creating visual support for the characters. I pick out or design clothes actors wear in collaboration with the actors, the director, and other designers on the production to do the best job of telling the story. I also teach courses in basic costume design, pattern making, and sewing. I am specifically the technology teacher for the making [of costumes].
As the associate head, I manage the timetable for the department and stand in for the department head as needed.
A good costume designer must be . . . interested in storytelling.
A costume designer creates visual clues to help the audience understand who the characters are, how they relate, and what they’re doing. Costumes tell all kinds of things—time of day, time of year, time in history, location, activity, relationship, age, gender, and more. A costume designer’s job is to figure out all those things and select clothes that support that.
You have to be a bit of a psychologist. You have to be a person who can communicate well with actors and understand what the actor’s job is. You can’t get in the way of what the actor is doing—I choose the clothes of the character, but I also have to take into account who the actor is, as well. Especially if the actor is wearing modern clothes—modern clothes are the hardest to do.
The number one rule of costuming is . . . the clothes must be something the character would reasonably wear.
The thing I dislike the most is when you go to a play and all you see are the fancy costumes. I think I am successful when you leave the play and you don’t remember the costumes. They were so exactly right for the character that you didn’t even think about the clothes. I do love things that are pretty and festive and shiny, but only if it fits the story being told. I think of clothing as language and in choosing the pieces, I am choosing the words that I’m going to use to express an idea.
I’ve been an actor and I know what it’s like to have someone else make those choices for you and what it’s like when those choices get in your way.
Favorite tool: A No. 2 lead pencil.
When I was in high school taking art classes, what we had were pencils and paper. I was taught that all you ever needed was a pencil and plain white paper. I love a new drawing pad and a box of Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils. I use them until the eraser is flat and then I move on to a new one.
On his favorite moments at Clarence Brown Theatre: A group of people working together to tell a story—when it really works—is magic. It’s empowering and awe-inspiring. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and a shiver runs up your spine. I’ve been a part of some wonderful, elaborate productions, like Candide last fall. It was a miracle that we were able to take the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, who approaches their art in one way, and the theater, who approach their art in another way, and to put them together into something new and so completely beautiful. I’ve also done plays where there are three characters and two of them are wearing jeans and T-shirts, and those are just as magical to me.
His path into theater life: I became a child actor at about four years old; I was chosen because I had a big mop of curly hair and big brown eyes. Theater is an incurable disease; once you’re infected with it, it’s with you the rest of your life.
I was an art student, and my grandmother taught me to sew. You put acting, art, and sewing in a blender and what comes out is costume design. I studied art and theater at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. My plan was to be a high school art teacher, but I had a professor who encouraged me to pursue an MFA at the University of Illinois.
In graduate school, I met someone from the Clarence Brown Theatre and learned they were looking for someone to supervise the costume shop. I thought this would be a starter job – just for a little while. The longer I was here, though, the harder it was to leave. What we do here is not college theater; it’s professional theater. I think our students don’t realize how not like college theater this is.
After I was here about seven years, we started an MFA program and my staff job became a faculty position.
What keeps him inspired: What I like about the theater is that the art we do is temporary and it’s always new. The thing I love about my job is that it is never the same every day—every project has a beginning and an end and then we start something new. Even in the worst of it, you know there is going to be an end and then we will start something new.
I also love making. A lot of costume designers don’t participate in the making that much, but I can’t keep my hands off. That joy of making is what I try to teach in my sewing classes. I’m not going to teach you how to make everything, but I’m going to teach you to want to make.
If I have the story and the characters in my mind, and I sit down to draw, there is joy in seeing what comes out of the end of the pencil. The best part of any project is starting it and ending it, and what comes in between is a lot of work. You have to find joy every day in the task that’s before you, and fortunately for me, in the theater that task is different every day.