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Sewing in subtext

Costumes designed between the lines

Versatile artist, costume designer, and technician Christina Beam ’18MFA was an “unapologetically nerdy” and inventive child. She once built a Victorian dollhouse for her Star Trek toys, dressing the figurines in handmade outfits using a stapler and bits of tape. Beam knows it was the images of this dollhouse that she included in her application to the UMass graduate program in costume design that made her portfolio stand out. She credits UMass with inspiring a crucial turn in her trajectory as an artist. “The day that I found out I got in, it changed my world. I suddenly went from working my customer service job to being in an environment where I was surrounded by people passionate about the things that I was passionate about—where people were supportive of me learning and growing. It opened up my mind and my eyes to a much broader picture of the world and my place in it.”
Beam particularly valued her dramaturgy courses. She asserts that, when shaping a theatrical production, the first step is always establishing the story, “because everyone on the team needs to have the same story and understanding of what it is we want to put on stage, how we want the audience to feel, and what we want them to take away from it.”

Costume design is another crucial element in telling a cohesive story, and there’s a synergetic relationship between the living actor on stage and the written character. As Beam puts it, “As much as the actor is honoring and portraying what’s in the text, you still see their mannerisms and their body, and the way that they move and carry themselves. And it’s kind of a combination of putting someone in something where it feels right—that’s why fit is so important—and it’s also about helping them to wear the clothes the way that they are meant to be worn.” As she visualizes characters, she has to consider where they live, where they buy clothing, and a multitude of socioeconomic and cultural factors—all of which are “indicators to help the audience to understand the second that character walks on stage who they are before they even open their mouth. And sometimes it’s a very subtle thing. Sometimes it’s just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, but it’s exactly the way that it fits or the way that it is worn, and it’s like, ‘I know that person.’”

The day that I found out I got in, it changed my world.

Beam fondly recalls late nights in the UMass costume shop, where—in collaboration with shop manager Kristin Jensen—she led design on her graduate thesis, Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge: A Flowergory Manifold. Beam oversaw the creation of numerous elaborate flower costumes and designed and draped the character Dirt’s ensemble: a cascading sequin gown and a delicate twig crown.
Currently a designer in residence for PaintBox Theatre and costume shop supervisor at Western Connecticut State University, Beam has executed an extraordinary range of projects. She is collaborating with filmmaker Ben Tobin on a series of photos of actors in costumes constructed with printer paper, Tyvek, and cardstock made to look like the pages of the storybook in which the characters originally appeared. She is thrilled to be finishing a show with several other UMass alums—her “artistic family.”  
Re/Emergence, “a post-apocalyptic performance” directed by fellow alum Jennifer Onopa ’18MFA, premiered in June at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton, Massachusetts. “This feels like a really lucky and exciting way to reenter working again,” Beam says.