From Sketch to Stage

Last summer, fourth-year art and design student Julia Neils and fifth-year interdisciplinary studies student Natalie Rathle spent eight weeks researching, dyeing and sewing costumes for Festival Mozaic productions as part of their Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP+) project.  

Original Story by Nicole Troy

The project, “Costume Design, Construction, and Implementation for Festival Mozaic productions: Appalachian Spring and The Soldier’s Tale,” marks the first time either student had participated in a SURP+ research project. 

“I didn't know that the College of Liberal Arts did any kind of research and I think that's why I looked twice at the email from Theatre and Dance Department Chair Brian Healy,” Rathle said. “This project opened my eyes to what research can look like in the College of Liberal Arts and how it's not just a STEM-dominated area.”

Faculty Mentorship 

Natalie Rathle
Natalie Rathle.

Prior to the project, only Rathle had experience in costume design having taken both the department’s beginner and intermediate costume design classes.  

To support the students throughout the eight-week project, Theatre and Dance Department Costume Shop Manager Laina Babb and Department Chair Brian Healy acted as faculty mentors. 

Babb designed the costumes on paper while the students worked under her guidance to research techniques and build the costumes that were worn on stage. 

“Laina was in the costume shop pretty much the whole time that we were in it,” Neils said. “I don't know if I've ever asked a teacher that many questions before. She was so helpful and supportive.” 

Babb has worked with Rathle in the costume shop since her first year at Cal Poly and found that teaching students with different experience levels was highly rewarding. 

Julia Neils
Julia Neils. Photo: Neve Lin

“Working with Julia and Natalie was a great experience, and I don’t know how I would have done it without them,” Babb said. “They both brought their own unique talents and insight to the projects that really made the productions the successes that they were. Seeing how far Natalie has come as a costumer has been a real joy. And while this was my first time working with Julia, seeing her artistic eye and ability to pick up new techniques so quickly was inspiring.” 


The Process 

The first project the pair worked on was for the ballet Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copeland. Appalachian Spring tells the story of a preacher and the wedding of a young couple in early America. 

To create historically accurate costumes from the 1900s, Neils combed through online museum archives in both San Luis Obispo and Atascadero for photos of citizens wearing casual, everyday outfits while Rathle visited the San Luis Obispo Historical Museum and spoke to museum docents. 

“I wanted to try to get some basic visualizations of the early 1900s country and what people were wearing out in the fields to work in San Luis Obispo,” Rathle said. “After I got some of that influence going, I was able to focus more research on building the actual body of the dress.” 

For the dyeing of the costumes, the students worked to create a “living landscape” of the Central Coast by conveying its crashing waves and rolling hills.  

Shibori dyeing process
Shibori dyeing process. Photo: Julia Neils

“We spent about a week looking for different dyeing techniques for each of those, and that's when I came across Shibori, which gives this pattern that can look like both waves and grass,” Neils said.  

Shibori is a Japanese tie-dyeing technique that derives from the word “shiboru” meaning to wring, squeeze or press. 

Using PCV pipe and a piece of string on a needle, Neils rolled the fabric onto the pipe and scrunched it together so the ink would dye in a “random and organic way.” The Shibori-dyed pieces were used to represent the rolling hills and wheat fields. 

Ice dyeing process
Ice dyeing process.
Photo: Natalie Rathle

To showcase the ocean, Rathle tested out ice-dying to create the crashing wave effects. Laying fabric on top of chicken wire, she placed a tarp below for the water to seep underneath. She then laid ice on top of the dresses and shook powder dye on top of it. When the ice melted, unique and distinct designs appeared. 

For the second production, “A Soldier’s Tale,” the students researched how to recreate historical Russian clothing including specific types of shirts and body warmers. 

Creating the historical Russian pieces gave the students the opportunity to use tools from the costume shop that they had never used, or even heard of, before. 

A Soldier's Tale process photo
Process photo from A Soldier's Tale. 

“One of the tools I used for the first time allowed us to put caps onto the boning in the corsets, so there weren’t these pokey metal edges jabbing the actors in the ribs,” Rathle said. 



The Show 

Appalachian Spring dancers
Dancers performing in Rathle and Neils' dresses
for Appalachian Spring. Photo: Heather Gray.
Choreography: Ryan Lawrence. Set Design: Sommer
Roman. Lighting: Zachary Hubbard. Costume Design:
Laina Babb.

After weeks of hard work, Neils and Rathle got to see their creations live on stage for Festival Mozaics' 2023 Summer Music Festival. 



“The biggest impression left on me from this project was the first time that we watched Appalachian Spring on stage. Seeing the dresses in the context that they were designed to be seen in and seeing the translation from working on them in the shop, stagnant, to being onstage and flowing was a great experience. I loved seeing that transformation,” Neils said.  

Appalachian Spring dancers
Photo: Heather Gray

Rathle agreed with Neils’ sentiments: “That's one of the amazing things about being a costume designer, or even just making costumes, is that transition period from staring at it in the shop to seeing it on stage with the lights, music and the whole ensemble all together. It feels very much like a success.”  



What’s Next? 

Inspired from her time on the project, Neils enrolled in a costume design class to learn more about the art. 

“This project introduced me to a whole other community at Cal Poly and I’ve become more involved in the Theatre and Dance Department as a whole,” Neils said. “Laina Babb, though she’s not the costume class teacher, was also a big influence into why I chose to take a costuming class.” 

Both students agree that the project was a fulfilling experience and encourage students to get more involved with undergraduate research and creative activity programs. 

“The experience was just so fun, and more student involvement would help grow the program so that we can get additional creative activity research opportunities for students,” Neils said.  

"This program confirmed two things for me: research is possible everywhere and I love costuming,” Rathle said. “I encourage students to keep an eye out for the CLA SURP offerings for next summer. I have a feeling they will further challenge the norms in research and widen opportunities for creative engagement." 

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