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Meet LeVonne Lindsay

An interview with our Costume Shop Manager

LeVonne Lindsay headshot.


LeVonne Lindsay is a Barrymore award-winning costume designer from Philadelphia, PA. Her freelance work is featured at theaters all over the city while she maintains her position as Costume Shop Manager for the Lang Performing Arts Center at Swarthmore College. She recently designed  the costumes for "Tempestuous Elements", a world premiere by Kia Corthron at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. 

We caught up with LeVonne to hear about her journey as a costume designer, costume shop manager and educator. Read on to find out about her love of sequins, what students can expect if they sign up to work in the costume shop, and what she wishes more people knew about costume designers! 


SR: Hi LeVonne! Can you start by telling us about your background? How did you get into this work? 

LL:  I'm from Abington, Pennsylvania, so, the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was always drawn to the arts. I did a lot of drawing when I was a kid. I thought for a while- well, first, I wanted to be a dancer, but I couldn't do the splits. I was very unflexible. And so I went with plan B and went to school at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, which is now Jefferson University, and majored in fashion design. And that's where I learned how to sew and make patterns, which has been very useful my whole life.

My first job was at Alfred Angelo Bridal, which at the time was in Horsham, Pennsylvania, close to home. Once I got bored with that, I thought maybe I wanted to go to New York. But it was hard: a lot of people wanted to start me at a lower salary than I was making in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, where I lived with my mom. So it was so much more affordable to stay. And then I just had a summer where I needed something to do, and so my mom made my sister take me to a community theater. She was going to volunteer, and so we both went to volunteer- we started as crew members, moving set pieces, and that kind of stuff. And then of course, if someone finds out that you know how to sew, you get roped into costume. 

SR: Yeah, they're like, “What are you doing in the run crew?” 

LL: Yeah! So I might have assisted someone, I’m not sure, but the first thing I remember is that they wanted me to do Little Shop of Horrors. Which is a gigantic project to give to someone who has never done a full show before! It was a community theater and everyone volunteered and pitched in. So I thought that was a lot of fun. And I was taking a performing arts class at college at the same time.

So I was already like, Hmm, this seems like more fun than fashion... 

Another part of it was the experience of going through college and taking classes, and finding out I didn't seem to fit in with the other fashion students. It was very competitive, and people were like very much- kind of Project Runway, for real. Yeah, so that show is a little triggering for me. (laughter) There's so much business to it. I think that was part of what didn't appeal to me. I just went right to the artistic part, and I didn't care about marketing or making a whole collection to sell or whatever. I was more interested in making one very exciting piece. I think that's why I was drawn to bridal, because it's one big, important piece. And it can be super fancy, you know, that was always my thing- sequins, lace, and sparkles. 

I watched a lot of old Hollywood films. I loved Busby Berkeley, and those kinds of 1930s productions where everything was just so flashy and cool. At one time, I thought I wanted to be a Vegas showgirl! That kind of production value always appeals to me, which is so funny because I rarely get to do that kind of stuff. People wouldn't even probably know that about me! 

SR: So what was your first job after the community theater gig? 

Eventually I got tired of the bridal job and wanted to leave home, so I was trying to figure out what to do with my life next. I started applying to theaters in Philadelphia, and the first one that responded was the Walnut Street Theatre. And the guy who was running the shop looked at my resume and said, “What you do in the bridal shop is the same thing as what a First Hand does here. We're looking for one, are you interested?” And I was like, “Sure!” I realized then that I was a city person. I loved traveling to the city, working in the city, just being a part of all of that excitement. And the first show that we worked on was a huge musical. 

SR: Sequins!  

LL: Yeah! So I was like, Okay, I think this is really what I want to do. What do I have to do to have this as a job? And I started seeing the costume designers come in with all their shopping bags, talking about where they went for lunch. They seemed so cool. And I realized- that's the job that I want. It all started to come together. I don’t know what took so long. I had a little bit of sewing skills, a design background, and wanted to do things that were big and exciting- I had all the ingredients. I think it was just that I didn't know any costume designers. No one told me I could be a costume designer. It just wasn't in my realm. And so it didn't seem like something that was possible.

I had always been good at school, and I felt some desire to learn more things. And so I decided to go grad school to get my degree in costume design.

I went to the University of Maryland. It felt like a big adventure, moving the first time from Philadelphia to Washington DC. I was 27, and I remember thinking, that's too old to go to grad school, I'm gonna be 30 when I get out! And then I realized, I'm still gonna be 30 in three years if I don't go to grad school. So that's what I did. It was hard. I enjoyed being in DC a lot, and making friends at school, but it was just a lot of hard work. And then my thesis was one of the last in the spring semester, so I was so focused on finishing my thesis that when I graduated I realized, oh wait, I don't have a job!

Someone sent me information about the fellowship at Arena Stage, and it was past the deadline, but I sent my application in anyways with a note that said, “Please, please, please look at this! I know it’s a couple days late, but I really want to do this!” And I got it! A lot of it was luck. And hard work, I won’t say I didn’t work hard. And the scholarship was for people of color, so that helped too. 

It was a crazy experience. On my first day there, they were like, “We're doing Agamemnon, we need to make all this armor out of ultrasuede, there's no room in the shop, so you're gonna be stuck in the basement”. It was just like, no rules. I was like, “When can I go home? When am I done?” You know, I didn't know if I had to make five piece a day or what? And they said, “Whenever you feel like you’re finished!” 

SR: Yeah, it used to be like that everywhere! 

LL: Right, just like, there were no hours, no deadlines, no clarity. So I remember briefly thinking that maybe I had made a huge mistake.

But I still think that's been my favorite job that I've ever had. I liked everybody that I worked with, and the woman that did the draping had been there forever and was so good. Everyone was just so good. So I loved it. I loved it there so much I stayed a second year- you're only supposed to do one, but I was like “I want to come back!” and they were like “we want you back!” So I did two years of the fellowship. I did one show on their Mainstage, and then I was kind of on my own, so I just kept freelancing in the DC area. At one point I was so broke I was a cater waiter whenever I had time, but then I started picking up so much design work that I didn't have time to do the catering stuff. And so yeah, so I started building my career in DC. And I did that until I was burnt out.

My roommate went to Valdosta State University in Georgia. 

I forget what her major was- something in Communications, but she was involved in theater, and their Costume Shop Manager got sick and had to quit unexpectedly. And so they called me, and said, “It's a temporary position for one year. Are you interested in moving to Valdosta Georgia for a year of teaching?” I had not taught anybody anything at this point! I knew I wanted to design and I could make costumes, so I was like, yeah, I can learn the rest! 

So that's what I did for a year, and once you get health insurance, and a steady paycheck, it’s hard to go back to freelancing. Again, I just love people, and in a small town like that, you have to make friends with the people that are there. A lot of them were Midwesterners, and we all felt a little displaced, so it was easy to make friends. And so I stayed for four years, until it was time to apply for tenure. And then I thought, well, I really don't want to live in Georgia for the rest of my life. 

SR: You’re a city person! 

LL: Right! So I ended up getting another teaching job at James Madison University. It was a pretty good program, and I thought it was supposed to be a two to three hour drive to DC from there. But in reality, if you try to drive through northern Virginia during rush hour, it could take four hours. So it wasn't like I could just get a design job in DC. I was just stuck in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was like, I don’t like mountains! What am I doing here? 

So I thought, okay, clearly what I need to do is move back to the city. And so I went back to just freelancing, and I did that for two years before I found another full time job, as the Costume Shop Manager at the University of the Arts, which I'm proud of. It wasn't easy all the time, but it was a full time job in Philadelphia. So I did that for nine years, until I came here.

SR: I’m so I'm glad you're back in Philadelphia where there are no mountains! 

LL: No mountains. I do miss the weather in Georgia, but it’s worth it to be here.

SR: So have you been freelancing as a designer in Philadelphia as well? 

LL: Well, I hid for the first year and a half, because I was burnt out. I had been freelancing for two years and I was like, I don't care if I never design again. Like, I need a job. I'm gonna retire here. And then I got bored. I do this to myself all the time. I tell myself I'm going to take off every summer, and then I take a month off and I'm bored and I want to do something creative. So it’s either a show, or I destroyed my house with some project.

And so I was hiding out, and then there was a show that was happening in the Drake. And they were like, “We're looking for a designer, someone who's a person of color, and I found your name on the list. And you're here in Philadelphia, and we didn't even know you existed!” It was a small show and I thought, I guess I can do it. 

SR: Just when you thought you were out, they got you back in. 

LL: They got me back in! 

SR: Okay, so I want to ask: what do you wish people knew about working with a costume designer? 

LL: I wish they knew that we're expected to do so many jobs. The actual jobs that are required to get costumes on stage are supposed to be many different people that have specialized skills in different things. I had to teach a makeup class once, and I barely wear makeup. Hair and wigs is a whole different set of skills. Some people are really good at it, and we should pay them to do things and not expect costume designers to do that. And stitching, really- once you're out of the trenches, you know. Of course you're willing to do that kind of stuff when you're just getting started, and you just want to get your foot in the door, but once you've done that for about 10 years, you should really stop sewing. Your job is to get the show together, and you cannot do that and do all of your alterations and make things without driving yourself a little bit- like you just don't sleep. There's not enough time in a day. The organizational part of designing; there so much tracking your budget and figuring out who wears everything, and what's seen, and how they change in and out of that, and all of the shopping, you know, that's that's one whole job. And so for all of those other things, you really need a team. I rarely ever see set designers painting their sets, or building anything themselves. 

SR: Right, It's not even expected. 

LL: Yeah, and you know, it’s not their fault, but why is there such a disconnect? And I blame television! Every show where there is a costume designer, you always see them behind the sewing machine at two in the morning trying to get this thing together for somebody to wear in the morning. That's the perception that people have of costume designers, and I'm sure it was true in the 1920s, but you know, I think it’s time to move on. 

SR: What do you love about running the Costume Shop? 

LL:  I realized as soon as I started working in colleges that I love being in the costume shop all the time. Some of the most satisfying moments are teaching someone how to use the machine, and they make something, and then they’re like, “I made something!” It's exciting every time, for me and for them.

I'm a little bit probably more laid back than some shop managers. I don't want to say like I'm disorganized or anything, but there are some people that act like everything is a crisis. And for me, you know, it's not that serious. So yeah, I'm not here to yell at anyone. Normally I'm playing pop music. We have a good time. 

SR: So what is it like for students when they work for you in the costume shop? What kind of stuff can they expect to do? 

LL: Well, it depends on the show. I mean, it's mostly contemporary stuff, but there's some crafty stuff. And so I want to know what the students are interested in and what they're good at. One student was in here the other day and I asked them, “Are you crafty at all?” And they said, “I think so?” And I said, “Well, we need to make this crown.” And they made this totally amazing crown! And I was like, “You’re a little more than crafty, you’ll be doing all of this kind of thing in the future!” 

And then there's just always work that needs to be done. Labels have gotta get in the costumes, buttons and snaps have got to get on and stay on, that kind of stuff. But I try to always make it a pleasant atmosphere to work in. 

SR: It seems like there is a lot they can learn from you if they are interested! 

LL: Yeah, and for anybody who shows extra interest, I love taking students with me to outside jobs, if they just want to shadow me for a day, if they want to take notes or just watch or whatever. I think that's great. Nobody helped me do this stuff. So I try to do whatever I can do for other people. 

SR: Last question, do you have any outside projects this semester?

LL: Yes! I recently designed Selling Kabul at Interact Theater, directed by Jude Sandy- we’ve just been following each other around from theater to theater since we met, so that's kind of fun. And now I'm working on this show called Tempestuous Elements by Kia Corthron. And it's going to take place at Arena Stage in Washington DC, where I did my fellowship.

SR: Oh wow, full circle! Congratulations! 

LL: Yes, thank you! It’s exciting. 

SR: Can people go see it if they’re in DC? 

LL: It runs through March 17th at Arena Stage.