BINGHAMTON RESEARCHERS, SCHOLARS & ARTISTS SPOTLIGHT
Meet a Faculty Mentor
Theatre Department Chair
'Costume designer' is the one of many names that can accurately describe Barbara Wolfe. She is also an experienced director, actress, set designer, and teacher. Now as the Chair of the Theatre Department, Professor Wolfe still finds time to be a mentor to her students whether it is in her office, the costume shop, the classroom, or on stage.
Sewing since she was 4, Professor Wolfe first became involved in theatre in high school, where she had fun making costumes for productions. When she arrived at Binghamton as an undergraduate, she intended to pursue a degree in Linguistic Anthropology. But Professor Wolfe still kept one foot in Theatre as she began working backstage and learned how to build necessary structures in the scene shop. Soon, she became a Theatre major and nurtured her newfound interest in set design. When she started graduate school at the New York University Tisch School of Arts, Professor Wolfe switched over to costume designing.
"Scenery was more interesting because it was harder. You should do what comes easier to you, because everything is hard. It's better to take advantage of what you can do, and build on that." Professor Wolfe did indeed build on her talent in costume design. After earning her MFA from NYU, she took on various jobs including one with costumer designer Colleen Atwood on the movie, Married with a Mob. Later, Professor Wolfe returned to Binghamton University to run the costume shop and to design the shows. She also taught before becoming a faculty member in the Theatre Department.
When designing for a show, Professor Wolfe says the first step is to "read the play a lot." Then she collaborates with the other designers and directors to come up with a certain point of view. The job also calls for a great amount of research. "Look up the time periods, and politics in whatever context. Most academics become experts in one field, but we are asked to be a temporary expert in a million different fields...when you do something for stage, it is in a way published."
Professor Wolfe believes that experience is the best teacher when it comes to costume designing. She employs apprenticeships, which helps budding designers learn more about the trade. A student starts out by taking a small job in the production, and then moves up to being an assistant, before becoming a designer. "When you first begin, you can't see the end. As you gain more experience, you become better at seeing the end goal of projects." Professor Wolfe guides students through the steps, from helping them execute ideas to the director to participating in fittings.
"It's all about communication; find a way to communicate your ideas to the audience, director, other designers, and actors...they [the students] will make mistakes, but they talk about it." Gayani Bulathsinghala, a current senior at Binghamton and Assistant Designer, has great potential for costume design, according to Professor Wolfe. "Working with Gayani on Dead Man's Cell Phone last spring, I noticed that she is very intricate in pulling out details from the script on what should be researched."
But whether or not any of her students want to be a costume designer, Professor Wolfe says, "Not everyone working in the costume shop are Theatre majors. I don't care whether or not they want to be a costume designer in real life. What is more important is the process and it's applicability to life."
....and her Student Mentee
Gayani Bulathsinghala, Senior Theater Major
Gayani Bulathsinghala is an individual of many talents, one of which is costume designing. Before coming to the United States in 2008, Gayani acted on TV and on stage in her home country of Sri Lanka. She became involved in the performing arts through the influence of her mother, a Sri Lankan actress named Lakshmi Damayanthi. Lakshmi was a PhD student at Binghamton and was the person who first introduced Gayani to Professor Barbara Wolfe in the Theatre Department.
Gayani started at Binghamton as a Biology major and was considering pursuing a double major with Theatre, so she sought Professor Wolfe's advice. "She [Professor Wolfe] is one of the best advisors. She knows exactly what to do. You can just walk into her office, even without making an appointment, and she will do anything to help you." After consulting with Professor Wolfe, Gayani decided to forego the Biology major and focus on Theatre.
Prior to enrolling at Binghamton University, Gayani attended Binghamton High School and then studied at Broome Community College where she became involved in the Theatre Department as a work-study student. Today she is a non-instructional faculty member at BCC working as a stage manager-a position she maintains even though she is no longer a student there.
Gayani keeps herself busy with this role and many other interests and hobbies. Through her many commitments, she has learned the importance of time management and thoroughness. "As a stage manager I have to keep a record of everything and know everything with regard to the show." She practices the same principles in other tasks. In regards to costume design, Gayani states: "For any play, you have to read up on the background. You are portraying a character in a particular way. It requires you to do character, contextual, social, and historical research."
Gayani has gained invaluable skills and experiences during her time at Binghamton. She has already served as an assistant designer for Rent and the designer for Proof. She also worked with Professor Wolfe on Dead Man's Cell Phone during spring 2013. Gayani shows excitement as she describes the design process: "For research, I had to start by looking at the different possible concepts of the play. Everyone involved must collaborate to portray the purpose of the play. As a costume designer, I try to find a balance between accuracy and staying true to the point of the story."
Moving forward, Gayani has many options for the future. She hopes to act again and work backstage as well. She also wants to explore other opportunities such as fashion design. Most would find her responsibilities and ambitions overwhelming, but Gayani explains: "If you enjoy it, you will not find it difficult to work very hard."
Articles written by: Tasfia Rahman '14