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Faculty Spotlight: Charles Schoonmaker

“The shit was hitting the fan at Brandeis University,” recalls Costume Design faculty Charles Schoonmaker regarding his path to Bennington. He had been teaching graduate students in the school’s MFA design program in 2008 when the recession caused the Theatre Department to go under. A fellow Brandeis coworker informed Prof. Schoonmaker of a position opening at Bennington College. 

Charles Schoonmaker

“I didn’t know anybody, I hadn’t worked with the other faculty, but I was immediately comfortable with them,” Schoonmaker says. “I made a connection with them right away. My weird combination of experience with television, dance, theatre, and a little opera was a good mix for somebody at Bennington.”

Schoonmaker’s diverse experiences would not have been so had he not taken a risk as an undergrad at SUNY Plattsburgh. 

“I lied, I said I knew how to sew. I got a work study job in the costume shop and said to another student, ‘You need to teach me how to use a sewing machine this weekend!’”  

Undergrad left him wanting more; Grad school and a life in the city was calling, but he lacked the training and portfolio he needed in order to make it happen. He took a year off after graduation to work as the guest costume designer at his alma mater. “I designed a bunch of shows, applied to NYU, and got in. All I wanted to do was live in New York City.”

Schoonmaker thought, “What else can I do?” Past classmates from NYU began designing for Broadway shows right out of the gate, and he was eager to get his foot in the door. “I took classes in interior design, and eventually got assistant costume designer jobs for Broadway shows.” He was also hired at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in western Massachusetts, where he worked as the resident costume designer for seven seasons.

It was here that he first designed exclusively dance numbers. “Dance work always seems artistically fulfilling,” says Schoonmaker. “Choreographers use the body like language. Some costume designers see it as a limitation, but I see it as liberating.” Some dance pieces he has worked on include The Bell Witch, The Unsung, Streets and Legends, and Flamencos en Route.

He has also worked for several television soap operas, including Another World, All My Children, and As the World Turns. “In terms of satisfaction, it was a steady job but not the most creative [one].”

The gig started as an assistant position, but he and his coworker soon became co-designers. They worked well together and moved on to different shows as a pair. It was for this work that he won four Daytime Emmy Awards; one for As the World Turns and three for Another World.

Some of Schoonmaker’s current projects have been put on hold due to Covid-19. Before the shutdown, he was designing costumes for a production of Drowsy Chaperone and was slated to do the same for The Inheritance. The latter has since been postponed indefinitely. “Just like many other things, it’s all been cut off because there’s no theatre.” 

One project, however, was able to come to fruition. Schoonmaker designed costumes for a socially distanced outdoor dance number in Rhode Island, whose initial performances took place last week. The number was performed at an historic estate on rolling lawns that led to the ocean.

“Dance pieces can be more abstract, more subtle,” he says. “A dance piece is less connected to reality and I find that really, really fulfilling.”

His favorite show to design thus far has been The Nibroc Trilogy by Arlene Hutton, a series of three plays that tracks a couple’s life together from the 1940s through the 1960s. The three decades covered by the play were diverse and iconic in their fashion trends, giving Chip lots of material to work with. It was produced through a small theatre in western Massachusetts, so costume design was a one-person department. 

“Part of what was so fulfilling was that every single piece of clothing and accessory went through my hands. I did everything myself and had such a great connection with the actors from doing three shows with them.”

When asked what advice he has to give to aspiring costume designers, he emphasizes one thing: be versatile.

 “Don’t specialize too soon, because costume designers pull from so many different things, so any class you can take will have some kind of application to theatrical design,” Schoonmaker says. “Same thing I say to my advisees — go take philosophy, go take literature… be as versatile as you can.” 

This theory applies now more than ever in times of Covid; “In the way the world is right now, the more different types of things you’re comfortable doing and enjoy doing, the better off you are.”
His favorite class to teach at Bennington is a 4000-level course called Costume Design for Fantasy. It was inspired by a dance he designed for The Bell Witch. “The witch was not a real person, it was a thing, a force of nature… designing that was the inspiration for the class.” Schoonmaker taught  Historical Dress: the Jazz Age in the first seven-weeks of the semester and will be moving on to Historical Dress: the 1930s in the second seven-weeks. He will also be teaching Art Deco Design in the 2021 spring semester.

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