When Kyle Artone applied to VCUarts’ costume design program, he wasn’t a theater novice. He had performed as an actor, and helped with prop and scene design. But during his senior year of high school, he decided to try something new: costume design.
“I had no budget, and I was sewing up until the last possible minute,” he says. “But I had so much fun. I just loved the craziness of it.”
Artone says he didn’t know much about professional costume design when he applied to the theatre department at VCUarts. And he didn’t know anything about Toni-Leslie James—a three-time Tony Award nominee and head of costume design at VCUarts—when he interviewed with her for admission into the program.
Still, Artone was admitted and almost immediately started designing costumes for theatre productions. He now knows the ins and outs of the process—from figure drawing and patternmaking, to paperwork and material sourcing—and considers James a mentor.
“My first projects that I presented didn’t feel right, because I was thinking too much about what Toni wanted to see versus what the project needed to be,” Artone says. “I took her critiques and thought about how I could show my best ability to design a show the right way. I have a massive amount of respect for her as a designer, and knew that working hard, improving after each project, and bringing her the best work I could do would benefit me as a designer, and make her proud.”
Four years later, Artone has designed costumes for a range of theatre productions including, most recently, Little Shop of Horrors and The Three Musketeers. This semester, for his senior project, he also designed head-to-toe costumes for the 10 leads and 50 ensemble characters that make up the cast of The Wiz.
Every production, he says, begins with a conversation with the director about their vision. With Little Shop of Horrors, Artone and director Kikau Alvaro agreed on an early-1960s setting, full of pencil skirts and pinup sweaters, as well as glittering sequin dresses reminiscent of the Supremes.
“The Audrey character has a scene where she’s dreaming about suburban life,” Artone says. “In the movie, there’s a dream sequence where she has five different dresses in a two-minute song. So, we gave her a bodice and a pencil skirt, and when she starts dreaming, the girls bring her the matching full skirt. She spins around and dances, and then the girls take it away.”
“That was a fun moment to create on stage.”
Artone was well-equipped with an extensive portfolio when he applied for graduate schools in the fall. But one collection in particular was a point of conversation during his interview with the Yale School of Drama.
In 2018, he submitted a design for competition at the Southeastern Theatre Conference. One of the judges was Jane Greenwood, who has been designing on Broadway for more than 50 years. In her feedback, Greenwood suggested that Artone didn’t know how to make the suit that he had drawn.
“She asked me to promise that I would go back and redraw the suit with a full understanding of its construction,” he says. “Ever since then, I’ve made sure that everything I draw I know how to build, inside and out.”
When Artone arrived for his admission interview this spring, Greenwood—who is also a design professor at Yale—was on the panel. The first thing he showed them was a new drawing of the suit, and how he took Greenwood’s advice to heart.
The extra effort paid off. Yale offered him a position on the spot, and Artone will be heading to New Haven, Connecticut this fall.