From creating castles out of cardboard boxes to designing dragons for major productions, Marie Chiment has been practicing art her whole life. Her interests in drawing and theater led her to designing costumes and sets for plays and operas as an adult.
Her experience in theater and costume and set designing eventually brought her to Main Campus as the head of design in 2006. Since then, she has assumed several positions within the theater department.
“I discovered that designing sets and costumes for opera and theater and dance combined all the things I loved to do — music, dancing, drawing, painting and performing. Now, I love creating entire worlds on stage,” Chiment said.
The Temple News: How did you get involved with costume designing?
Marie Chiment: Well, first of all, I am a set and costume designer, I do both. But I would say I have been interested in art my whole life, even as a tiny child. I was always drawing and painting — and my family moved a lot and so every time we moved we had a lot of empty boxes and so I would always turn the empty boxes into forts and houses and castles. So I was always in a world of imagination, making things out of whatever was around and as I got older I kept doing it.
I kept taking music lessons and dance lessons, and I kept acting and singing and it was probably in junior high when I had a teacher who told me there’s actually a job that people do where they design costumes and sets for operas, shows, dances and that opened up a whole world for me — my goodness, these are all the things I love to do anyway, so I might as well study them at school. In high school, I started designing all the costumes and sets for all the shows and when I went to college I continued to do theater, dance and music and began designing everything in college and in grad school, then after school when I graduated from [New York University] in 1981, I began freelance work and eventually made a career out of it.
TTN: What was your first costume-designing job and how did you get it?
MC: Well, I took a break in between undergraduate school and graduate school, so when I graduated from UC San Diego, I worked for two years at the Berkley Repertory Theater. I ran their costume shop, I built and designed all their costumes, and so my first job right out of undergraduate school was at the Berkley Repertory Theater. I did that for two years, and after two years, I realized I had wanted more experience with a bigger world of theater so I moved out of Berkley and moved to New York City and attended NYU.
So I was in the grad school at NYU for three years and I did some designing on the side, but mostly when I finished working at NYU and got my [master’s degree], I started working professionally and seriously. I would say my first biggest show was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It was a fun show because it was all fantasy and there were also some famous people in it. Kathleen Turner was quite famous at the time and here I am, a young designer, and I was told to go to Kathleen’s penthouse and sit with her and go over all the costume designs and it was interesting to me, I had never done anything like that before.
TTN: How did you end up at Temple?
MC: After living in New York for about 25 years, the dean of Webster University asked me if I would be willing to teach for them for about three years while one of their teachers went to London. I thought about it and my husband and I decided that we would indeed be willing to move to Missouri for three years. So we were there for three years and it was very interesting because life was so different living in a small town instead of a big city. And we discovered we actually liked having a house instead of a one-bedroom apartment and we liked the lifestyle, so when I was done with my three years at Webster I decided to start looking for teaching positions. And it just so happens that somebody I met at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was at Temple and he heard that I was looking for a teaching job and he [asked me if I was interested]. This man was Peter Reynolds, who is now [head of musical theater] at Temple. I went and interviewed and got the position and that was in 2006 and I have been here ever since.
TTN: What exactly is your role at Temple?
MC: I have worn many hats here at Temple since I have arrived. Then, I was strictly the head of costume design and my job was to teach different levels of costume design — one, two and three.
I also taught drawing, rendering and history of costumes. After about two years, they made me head of design, so not just costumes, but sets, costumes and that whole area. In 2010, they asked me to be the chair of the theater department, so now I’m not just head of designing, but head of acting, signing, the whole field and I did that for two years. And just this year I went back to being just head of design. I was ready to take a break and go back to the world of design, which I knew so well.
TTN: Why did you choose to step down from chair of the theater department?
MC: Well it allows me to spend more time with the students. I can go to all the shows, I can mentor my students, I can help them with new projects and I just have more time with them and for my own creative work. When I was chair, I had no time to do anything except do that job 24 hours a day. And I felt the need to get back to my roots in art and theater.
TTN: What side projects do you work on?
MC: There is a theater company downtown called Mauckingbird Theatre [Company]. It is run by one of our professors here, Peter Reynolds. I am the resident designer for that company. They have been producing for about four or five years now and they put on shows and I design the sets and the costumes for that company. I also do opera and I work with Curtis Opera downtown and I designed the costumes and the sets [for their most recent show.]
TTN: What is the importance of the arts in academics?
MC: As budgets for the arts tighten, we need to find new ways to keep all of the arts alive and affordable to our audiences and especially to children. One of the first things to go tends to be the arts and I am concerned that both governments and schools are cutting back on arts programs for children. Without that, I do not think we have fully-formed citizens that are the best they can be because the arts are a very important part of education.
Nickee Plaksen can be reached at email@example.com.