The Collegian
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Professor works as costume designer on movie set

Johann Stegmeir, assistant professor of theater and dance at the University of Richmond, worked as costume designer on the movie set "Peace, Love and Misunderstanding" in the Hudson Valley of New York last summer.

The movie, set to release in 2011, is directed by Bruce Beresford and features actors Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Chace Crawford.

Stegmeir said the movie was about reconciliation.

The daughter, played by Keener, has rejected the lifestyle she grew up in and her hippie mother, Fonda. Keener moves to New York, becomes a lawyer, gets married and has two children.

In the first scene of the movie, Keener's husband tells her he wants a divorce. She goes home to her mother, whom she hasn't spoken to in 20 years, and comes to an understanding of what her upbringing was and what her relationship with her mother was and is.

They reconcile and reunite as a family.

Beresford called Stegmeir last spring to tell him about the movie. Stegmeir started quickly researching and designing.

Several years ago, Stegmeir was hired to design the opera "Rigoletto" at the Los Angeles Opera, directed by Beresford. Stegmeir had done assisting work at the opera company, and the artistic director decided it was time he designed something. It turned out to be successful.

"I had a big success in the collaboration with the director [Beresford]," Stegmeir said. "He's called me to do a couple of different movies but they've not worked."

He explained that it was always uncertain whether a movie was actually going to be made. The last movie they were working on, Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance," got all the way to having bids placed for costumes to be made before all money evaporated.

Beresford told Stegmeir he thought "Peace, Love and Misunderstanding" would actually work.

At the time, Fonda was the only one signed on, so Stegmeir searched for her costumes first and submitted them to the director, who approved them.

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He submitted them to Fonda, who wanted some revisions, and then revised them. As the other actors were cast, he started designing for them.

Stegmeir worked very closely with the actors. He explained that in theatre, an actor will usually have only two to three changes. Even in a large, extravagant, production, only five or six were a standard for each act.

Movies are different. "Love, Peace and Misunderstanding" had 137 scenes. Fonda had about 30 costumes and Keener about 16.

"Already with these two leading ladies I have more costumes than I would often for an entire play," Stegmeir said. He also had to design for the rest of the characters and the background players.

Stegmeir said his favorite costumes to design were Fonda's.

"It was this idea that the '60s never stopped and this sort of hippie way of life still exists," Stegmeir said.

Stegmeir said in the script, Fonda's character said, "It's all about color." Her house and her surroundings were extravagantly colored. At first, the production designer was concerned that Stegmeir's costumes wouldn't be bold enough to overpower Fonda's character's cottage, which was extravagantly painted bright, bold colors with beaded curtains. Stegmeir assured him they would.

He said working on a Hollywood movie set had been hard. He worked 18-hour days six and a half to seven days a week. Until the movie finished, he had only two full days off. But, he said he would absolutely do it again.

Senior Sloane True, theater major and president of the University Players, took introduction to costume design with Stegmeir her first semester freshman year.

She heard he was working with the movie during the summer and e-mailed him to work as a wardrobe intern for the set. She ran errands like dry cleaning, washing and steaming clothes and helping everyone get dressed.

True said it had been really fun to watch Stegmeir work outside of the university. She said the costume designer's job wasn't finished when filming started.

"He's there to say, 'No I don't like this, no change this,'" she said.

"He is an amazing costume designer that this university is incredibly lucky to have and just working with him is an influence to keep trying no matter how many early mornings you have to work on a set, or how many pairs of shoes you have to age," True said. "I could not have had a better opportunity to get started in the film world than I did this summer and I am incredibly appreciative of everything he did for me."

Dorothy Holland, associate professor of theater, said the theater department was delighted and proud to be represented in the highest circles by Stegmeir.

Currently, Stegmeir is working on "Rent" and the coming dance concert at Richmond. He teaches introduction to costume design, advanced costume design and a series of classes called production studies.

The students in his classes work on the productions he is doing and go to see them. It's a hands-on experience.

"When you take my classes, you see my shows, you see the work that I do and you participate in the work," Stegmeir said. "It's like being in the passenger's seat."

True said he was a great teacher and pushed students to think outside of the box creatively, but at the same time, made sure everything was connected to the production they were working on. He questioned students about why they were doing what they were doing, and what made them do it that way, she said.

"I like to teach because I like to work in the theater, and I think that I have a particular professional point of view," Stegmeir said. "I like to share my experience."

He has been at Richmond for three years.

"He's absolutely the best, number one, hands down," Holland said. "He's a phenomenal designer." She said Stegmeir was knowledgeable about history, the world, art, movements in art, and he had a wonderful eye and great perspective.

"When he's on a team, the conversation is incredibly engrossing, enlightening, it's fun," Holland said. "He makes everybody else work harder because he's so good."

Stegmeir's love of theater began as a small child when he begged his mother to get tickets to see a children's theater troupe. From then on, they always went to the theater.

In 10th grade, Stegmeir's school was doing a production of "West Side Story" and a professional costume designer was hired.

The designer showed up with a box of clothes and never came back, so he rummaged through the box and went to stores and assembled "West Side Story."

He later went to graduate school in Tennessee for costume design and worked with a small theater company in North Carolina before receiving a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and moving to New York City where he worked as a professional set and costume designer for 15 years before coming to Richmond to teach.

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