Turning designers’ sketches into beautiful garments

Judy Adamson learned to sew at age 10 at the hand of her mother on an Iowa farm. Adamson still remembers her first garment, a border-print, gathered skirt. Fast-forward to her college days, when she majored in speech and theater and eventually got hired by Barbara Matera Ltd., one of the foremost costume houses in New York City.

Adamson worked for Barbara Matera for 14 years (she spent 10 years as her first assistant) before coming to UNC in 1994 as costume director for PlayMakers Repertory Company. (see related story, “Costuming “The Parchman Hour.”) David Adamson, her husband, is a member of PlayMakers, and a lecturer and academic adviser for the department of dramatic art.

While at Matera’s, Adamson draped costumes for Broadway shows such as “Secret Garden,” “Hairspray,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” She worked on “Beauty and the Beast” while commuting back and forth from New York to Chapel Hill. When asked to pick a favorite, she said, “oh my goodness, too many,” but then mentioned a fondness for “Showboat” and “Crazy for You.”

As head of the costume production program in the department of dramatic art, Adamson works very closely with undergraduate students and graduate students who are pursuing a three-year MFA in costume production. In March 2012, the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) will present her with a big honor — the Distinguished Achievement in Education Award. Two MFA students, Kaitlin Fara and Claire Fleming, recently won awards for their work at a USITT Southeast design expo.

Bobbi Owen, a costume designer and senior associate dean for undergraduate education, said the award is well-deserved.

“Judy has a reputation for being able to turn a designer’s sketch into a magic garment,” said Owen, Michael R. McVaugh Distinguished Professor of Dramatic Art. “She can make a costume sketch for a Chanel suit look like I flew to Paris and threw the budget to the wind. Trusting her with a costume sketch means that a designer will be rewarded with carefully made costumes that look like they walked off the page.”

Adamson said one of the most rewarding things about working with students is seeing them graduate and then move into the profession.

“It’s every bit as satisfying to me to train somebody who goes to a university-level theater as it is someone who goes to New York,” she said.

First-year graduate student Kelly Renko was drawn to UNC’s costume production program in part because of Adamson’s reputation.

“She is amazing at what she does. She can tell you any technique that ever existed for making a garment,” Renko said. “She’s not easy to impress, so you know if she likes it, you’ve done something right.”

Adrienne Corral, a second-year graduate student, said it’s interesting to work with someone who really enjoys what she does — and is so good at it.

“Judy is always willing to give you an opinion, and to help you figure out what you want to do with your garment,” Corral said. “She’s really improved both my quality and speed, and I’ve become a much better stitcher.”

Adamson has also worked extensively in dance with American Ballet Theatre, Paul Taylor and the Carolina Ballet. One of her former graduate students, Kerri Martinsen, is now the costume director for Carolina Ballet. And for 10 summers Adamson has worked as a draper for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, where she has done such shows as “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “Private Lives” and “Lend Me a Tenor, the Musical.”

Adamson said because UNC’s costume production program is tied to PlayMakers, students must produce quality work.

“We have a unique program,” she said. “When students leave here, they have on their resume that they graduated with an MFA, and they’ve been working for a professional theater for three years.”

[Story by Kim Weaver Spurr ‘88]