Bringing Stage Characters to Life through Costume Design: A Conversation with Damian Dominguez
By Grace Clark, Education Enrollment and Marketing Coordinator
Behind every stage character and costume is a designer who, through vision and imagination, creates a wardrobe that speaks to the overall storytelling. Enter costume designer Damian Dominguez, who spent the summer creating dazzling designs for three Youth Summer Studio shows. A former Costume Shop Apprentice (2014/15) at Hartford Stage, Dominguez holds B.A. degrees in Music and Theatre from the University of Georgia and is currently completing his final year at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing an M.F.A in Costume Design.
What is your theatre background?
I grew up performing in school theatre. My first theatre production was in 5th grade; after that, I managed to participate in at least one theatre production a year. Some of my favorite roles include Horton in Seussical and Otto in Spring Awakening. Although I primarily work as a costume designer now, much of my early theatre experience was in acting. Even at the university level, I primarily trained as an actor, in addition to my other focus – music education.
How did you become interested in costume design?
Costume design was never on my radar at an early age. When I started classes at the University of Georgia, my major was music education. After two and a half years, I realized how much I missed theatre. Foundations of Performance Design (with Professor and Costume Designer Ivan Ingermann), was my first introduction to costume design. I immediately fell in love with the process of costume design. Listening to Ivan talk passionately about his process and work, I knew it was something I wanted to explore. I sought him out and asked for feedback and information on my project, and he guided me in the direction of additional classes I could take. Within a semester, I was taking both acting and costume design classes; and I had been hired to work in the costume shop through work study. From that point forward, costume design became my passion.
What specific skillsets do you need for costume design?
We have to be thorough readers and text analyzers to truly understand every character we are dressing. Only after numerous readings of the text are we able to move forward into the next step – research. Whether it’s historical, conceptual, or emotional research, we find inspiration from numerous sources that can be found online, in museums, in photographs, and in real life. After this, I move forward into the design process. Artistic skills, including painting, drawing, and collaging are crucial to what I do. Through drawings, costume designers are able to communicate their vision to the artistic team; and they will also use these renderings to communicate with the costume shop building the designed garments.
What costume work have you done for Summer Studio?
This was my fifth summer with Education @ Harford Stage. The past four summers, I had primarily designed the two Youth Ensemble productions. This was my first year adding a third production, the Teen Musical production of Once Upon a Mattress. I took on a huge challenge of designing three shows, with over 80 young actors, in only five weeks. It proved to be the most difficult and challenging summer but also the most rewarding.
Beauty and the Beast, Jr., was my biggest challenge due to the size of the cast, the scope and demands of the show, and the expectations of audience members when they hear the title. It was a huge undertaking, but I was lucky enough to have a large team of people help make my vision a reality. All of the magical object costumes were created by me and my team. Draping Belle’s gown was definitely a highlight. After having learned draping skills at Carnegie Mellon, I wanted to design and make Belle’s gown from start to finish. The moment our young actress wore the gown onstage for the first time was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with Hartford Stage. The cast and director were crying tears of joy, and it was a really special moment for all involved.
What do you love about designing and creating costumes?
I love the storytelling we get to do. So many times, designers make choices that support and enhance the story in a way that aren’t always obvious to the audience. Through choices of color, shape, and textures, we can physically show the growth or downfall of a character by the choices we make.
As a young Latinx costume designer, what are your thoughts on diversity in the industry?
I am a first generation Mexican-American. My parents immigrated from Mexico in the early ‘80s. Like so much of the theatre world, the costume design industry is making a shift toward a more inclusive and diverse future, and it’s absolutely exciting. Seeing fresh new faces, including many women and people of color, is giving hope to young designers like myself.
How has your work and experience at Hartford Stage prepared you?
If it weren’t for the apprenticeship program, I would definitely not be where I am today. Blair Gulledge, the costume shop manager, took a chance on me, someone who had very little costuming experience but was eager to learn. That one year as an apprentice shaped my life in a way I never expected, and I will always be grateful for Hartford Stage.