After Halloween sweet for costumer

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

FAIRBANKS Tara Maginnis doesn't look forward to Halloween so much as the day after it.

''I say that Nov. 1 is national cheap wig and makeup day,'' said Maginnis, holding forth from a Dumpster-dived couch in her cramped University of Alaska Fairbanks Theatre Department office. ''I tell my classes, that's the day you need to go raiding all these stores.''

Maginnis, Theatre UAF's costume designer, has made a name for herself by producing grand, eye-catching stagewear on a tight budget. Despite often having to scavenge for material from Value Village or local transfer sites, she's consistently engineered creations that cross the line from clothing into art.

''I think she's an amazing designer,'' said Kade Mendelowitz, a lighting designer, associate professor and the chair of the theater department. ''She's truly the best costumer I ever worked with.''

Maginnis first came to UAF in 1988, shrugging off some of the usual Alaska concerns ''I've been known to go into mild forms of hypothermia at 40 above'' to take a one-year costume design and teaching position while finishing up her doctorate at the University of Georgia.

Thanks to a pair of professors, Tom Riccio and Anatoly Antohin, who shared her enthusiasm for offbeat designs, Maginnis ending up having ''mostly a great time'' at UAF and took the job permanently in 1990.

''They had very different, wild, crazy things that they wanted done for shows,'' Maginnis said. ''If I were having to do lots and lots of 19th-century-period drama-style costumes, which is what my predecessor did, I'd be bored off my socks. ... I want to do strange, mutant costumes that look like wearable art.''

Maginnis didn't start out that way. Her first interest was in period garb, which she got into while growing up in suburban San Francisco. Watching ''Masterpiece Theatre'' on PBS and leafing through her parents' collection of Time-Life books on ''The Great Ages of Man,'' she was en-tranced by the images of life in other times long before she understood the text.

''I barely understand (Henry James) now,'' Maginnis laughed, citing a TV dramatization of James' ''The Golden Bowl.'' ''But I'd sit through an hour and a half of staying up late watching a Henry James thing, because I was so transfixed by the reproduction of the material culture of a different time period.''

Eventually, Maginnis br-anched out past faithful reproductions. She's costumed around 30 to 40 UAF shows, ranging from full period extravaganzas such as ''Dangerous Liaisons'' and ''The Mikado'' to offbeat pieces such as ''Kartasi,'' a Riccio play designed to look like a video game.

One of Maginnis' specialties is the reinterpretation of classics, and she's particularly proud of her 2000 adaptation of Oscar Wilde's ''The Importance of Being Earnest,'' in which the actors wore period costumes partly made out of the decidedly un-period material of clear plastic.

Her next play, an adaptation of Shakespeare's ''The Taming of the Shrew,'' will feature similarly anachronistic assemblages, mixing Elizabethan designs with 21st century Japanese street fashion.

Maginnis said a big reason for the eclectic costuming is simply to offer audiences a new take on pieces they've probably seen performed already. But there are also thematic reasons: In ''Earnest,'' she said, the idea was to convey the way in which the characters had effectively invented their own personae.

And ''Shrew's'' costuming is meant to comment on the parallels between the plot of Shakespeare's work and the modern practice of real-life role-playing, she said.

''I think that makes the intention a little clearer as to what we're doing,'' she said. ''It's people adopting various games to try to win, to find true love.''

There's also a more practical reason, Maginnis noted: There's no way what she called the ''horribly underfunded'' theater department could afford to costume an entire traditionally dressed production of ''The Taming of the Shrew'' anyway.

It's that shoestring budget that's led Maginnis to a lot of her costume improvisation, she said.

Antohin gives the designer credit for scavenging her materials from wherever she can, describing ''Kartasi'' costumes built from garbage bags and umbrellas for ''The Mikado'' she picked up cheap in San Francisco's Chinatown.

She's also dragged her costume fixation into the computer age. She's put up more than 800 pages on the ''The Costumer's Manifesto,'' a Web site she started in 1996. It gets at least 10,000 visitors a day and about 30,000 on an average weekday during the school year.

The site is both authoritative and personal: Content ranges from an entire costume history course, to extensive timelines of historical dress, to pages on Dumpster diving in Fairbanks and on Maginnis' cat.

''The manifesto is an html version of the inside of my head,'' she said.

Maginnis had to back away from the Web site in recent months, however, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall. The cancer was caught and removed very early, Maginnis said.

She's since embarked on a strict regimen of diet and exercise, a dramatic lifestyle change that has forced her to prioritize her life.

''You do not have the strength to do 60 zillion things all at once,'' she said.

Sixty zillion doesn't feel like hyperbole when talking about Maginnis. In addition to her design work, she teaches about four classes a year, mostly in costuming but also in makeup, which she sometimes does for shows.

Theaters across Fairbanks often turn to her and the department for help with costuming. She's written dozens of papers and articles, and she also spent about a year in St. Petersburg, Russia, helping to start a short-lived UAF theater program there.

But Antohin and Mendelowitz said one of Maginnis' biggest contributions to UAF her relationship with her students doesn't show up on her resume.

''Many theater majors are kind of lost souls, and so they often just need life advice, and she's really helpful to them just figuring situations out,'' Mendelowitz said.

Antohin said Maginnis has made the costume shop into the heart of the department.

''Somehow she just turned it into a strange place for students to sit around to work, to socialize,'' he said. ''It's not just a costume shop, it's a special place.''

Maginnis points to another way she helps the student actors. One of the major functions of costuming, she said, is to help the actor escape him or herself and jump into a different persona.

''I have on my car license plate frame: 'I make clothes for imaginary people,''' she said. ''You make clothes for imaginary people, and I think it makes it a lot easier for an actor, when they're putting on those clothes, to become that imaginary person.''

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