The Show Will Go On

While theaters remain dark amid the coronavirus pandemic, the light still shines for costume design professor Judith Dolan.

Photo: Manny Rotenberg

Dolan has been a part of UC San Diego’s theater and dance department for more than 20 years and has created theatrical costumes for nearly every era of fashion. In 1997, she received the Tony Award for Best Costume Design of Candide, her carnivalesque take on the dark satire set in 18th-century Europe—a period she had to research heavily, as she does with all her projects. “It’s not just about information,” she says. “It’s about creating an emotional landscape for this world you’re going to help to create with your collaborators.”

This research often leads her to collage as a way to assemble and experiment with ideas. “It’s through collage that I visually edit the world,” says Dolan. “You begin to edit what you’re imagining, determining the things you’re going to use.” From there she puts pen and brush to paper for the costume design, folding in the background knowledge to the characters and their wardrobes. Here’s a small glimpse into her process:

Collage for Travesties

“This show by Tom Stoppard is full of games, puns, and secret little things that he plugs into the text—so I took his writing style and incorporated it into my collages, which likewise have little secret things in them. It’s a contrast between two worlds, a slightly ridiculous tea party set against a very dark landscape of World War I.”

“Lady Mummer” from Candide

A drawing of woman wearing a short yellow and red dress. She wears yellow and red striped pantaloons, green socks and black boots. Beside her, there is a smaller drawing of her wearing the pantaloons without the dress.

“A costume is a kinetic sculpture, designed to move. Part of the engineering is to find the right fabric and cut so it moves the way you want. The ensemble here is based on 19th-century circus costumes for lady acrobats. Every member had different trims and colors, but they all had the same silhouette and a kind of sweetness.”

“Mary Phagan” and “Jim Conley” from Parade

Two drawings side by side. One drawing has a woman wearing a dress with notes around it. The other drawing has a man wearing an apron with notes around him.“For these two characters, I wanted to tie in the plight of the African-American man in the early 1900s, with that of the mill child. It was a statement about class and finding ways to ask, ‘What are our similarities rather than our differences? What binds us together?’ So I made sure that their burlap aprons were the exact same fabric.”


There will be a second act for the performing arts, says Dolan. Through the most difficult of times, it is the creative arts that have lifted our spirits, helping us process, recover, and heal.

“Theater teaches interhuman collaboration and appreciation—let’s find the bridges, let’s find the things that connect to us and find how can we move forward,” says Dolan. “I can’t think of a better model as we struggle with some really difficult questions, like COVID-19 and the social and racial issues we’re facing now. The theater arts are more important than ever before—it’s something we’ll always need.”