Costume designer retiring after 36 years with Pittsburgh Playhouse
After 36 years of costuming characters from Peter Pan to Eva Peron, Pittsburgh Playhouse costume designer Don DiFonso is trading in his needles and fabrics for a paint box and brushes.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a Playhouse Jr. production running through June 8, will be his 150th and final production.
“I always said I would (continue) as long as it was fun,” says DiFonso, 66. “It became work. … It's been fun, but I'm tired of being on deadline.”
He's looking forward to having time to travel and create watercolor paintings.
Filling a resume with 150 productions is almost inevitable when you work at Point Park University's Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Located in Oakland, the three-theater performing arts center is home to The Rep — a professional theater company — and three student companies — Conservatory Theatre Company, conservatory Dance Company and Playhouse Jr. A typical season includes 18 major productions.
During his nearly four decades at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, DiFonso created costumes for shows such as the musicals “Can Can,” “Dreamgirls” and “Side Show,” as well as dramas such as “One Flea Spare,” “The Exonerated” and “Heads.”
“He's flexible. Don can cover any genre,” says Ronald Allan Lindblom, vice president and artistic director of the Conservatory of Performing Arts and Pittsburgh Playhouse. “His designs for characters are really great. They are character-driven and workable. Women love Don's designs because you can move in (them) and look good.”
Actor Randy Kovitz, who has worn DiFonso's costumes in several shows, also praises him.
“He's a lovely man, very sensitive to actors' costumes, making sure we look good, feel good and that (the costumes) work good for the character,” Kovitz says. “I know it's important to him that everybody be comfortable onstage and clothes help create the character.”
DiFonso is particularly proud of his costume work on the Conservatory Theatre Company's production of “Grand Hotel,” for which he received two certificates of merit from The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in 2002.
“I liked doing that production, though it almost killed me. … There wasn't enough time to build everything,” he says, noting that he had to rent some pieces.
In recent years, he has worked exclusively at Pittsburgh Playhouse. But in earlier years, he designed costumes for productions at now-defunct companies that include Hartwood Theater, Camelot Productions, Brockett Productions, Starlight Productions and Kenley Players in Ohio, as well as still-operating companies that include Apple Hill Playhouse and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
“I came in through the back door,” DiFonso says.
He was studying for an associate's degree from Ivy School of Professional Art when summer theater producers Jay Christopher and Jack Kelly hired him as the general manager for their White Barn Theater, near Irwin.
They asked him to design the sets and lights for a production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — and he just kept on going.
“It used to be so fun,” DiFonso says. “I'm a designer at heart. I did lights, costumes, sets.”
As the technology changed, he began narrowing his work. He eliminated lights, then sets, while continuing to design costumes.
“Because I could take them home at night and work in front of the TV,” he says.
In 1978, while working on a production of “The King and I,” one of the actresses told him the Playhouse was looking for a designer. He applied for the job and never left.
DiFonso also worked as an instructor for Point Park University's Conservatory of Performing Arts, teaching classes in costume craft, costume construction and introduction to drawing.
“I really enjoy the students,” he says. “They're just so fresh and appreciative of everything you do, and they are fun because they keep you young.”
Although retiring, he plans to continue teaching the costume construction class.
Lindblom says he doesn't expect to miss DiFonso: “Because we are going to suck him back in. He will retire, but still do (a) show when he wants. He's not retiring as an artist.”