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Theater

Costume director meets challenges of Seton Hill post

Shirley McMarlin
| Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Susan O'Neill, costume director for Seton Hill University's theatre and dance program, poses for a portrait at the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center in Greensburg, on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Susan O'Neill, costume director for Seton Hill University's theatre and dance program, poses for a portrait at the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center in Greensburg, on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016.

In the depths of the Seton Hill University Performing Arts Center in Greensburg, Susan O'Neill holds sway as costume director for the theater and dance program. A professional costume designer since 1985, the Mercer resident spent 11 years as resident costume designer-coordinator for Pittsburgh Opera and nine years as resident designer for Dance Alloy. Her costume designs and builds have been seen at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Santa Fe Opera and other stages around the globe. Former clients include Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills.

Question: How did your career evolve?

Answer: I started my own business in 1982; primarily I was selling my designs and bidding on building other designers' work. It was never in my life plan to be a teacher; the opportunity just presented itself at a time that I wasn't able to commit to doing a professional show. I picked up a few adjuncts, and it just evolved into a full-time position.

Q: What's your educational background?

A: I have a bachelor of science degree from Seton Hill in merchandising and textile chemistry, which was part of the home economics department which is now gone. My family has been part of Seton Hill for a very long time. My great-aunt on my mother's side was Sister Frances Clare Evans, who had a pretty big part in starting the music program here.

Q: What type of work do you prefer?

A: I like really creative costuming, theatrical costuming; and I really love building menswear, building suits.

Q: Why menswear and not women's?

A: Menswear is very scientific. If you can give me two or three measurements from a man's body and a photograph of him, I can make a suit that fits without ever meeting him. If you line up five women that are all a size 12, they look nothing alike. Menswear is all math and science and, if you get too creative with the lines, it doesn't work.

Q: Who works with you at Seton Hill?

A: Other than myself and one other part-time professional person, everyone else is student crew. Many are performance majors who spend four years as work-study students in the costume shop.

The challenge is that what I design here has to address the needs of the play, meet the style interests of the director, look good and be able to be made by people who are just learning the difference between a needle and a pin. How do we build things that are stageworthy without overwhelming students who have never done this work before?

Q: You “build” costumes?

A: You always “build” costumes, that's the industry terminology. There's a significant infrastructure and a lot of engineering and math involved in how you make the garment stay where it needs to — or how you make it collapse on cue.

When you look at an opera gown or a period gown and you've got the panniers on the side, you have to look at the activity that the performer needs to be able to do in that dress. A woman's strength is in her hips, so you've got that boat strapped to your hips, and if it's strapped too low or too high, your back is going to hurt. So it really is engineering to get the weight appropriately located to use the human form to support it.

Q: Word has it you're behind the current yarn-bomb installation in downtown Greensburg.

A: I've known Catena Bergevin (director of development at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art) since back to my opera days, so I went to her with my seed idea for the yarn bombing. I thought it would be this little project and maybe I'd get my class to do a bicycle. She said, “This is great,” and we ended up with a path through town that ends with a big installation in the (Seton Hill) Art Yard. Now we have merchants involved, and it will be installed for two weeks (ending Oct. 28 with a yarn-bomb crawl event).

It got big very quickly and in a good way. We set the goal of collecting 100 blankets for donation to the Blackburn Center, but really the measure of success is how many people are involved.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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