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Fateful field trip changed course of Toni-Leslie James’ life

Theatre VCU's award-winning costume director parlayed childhood love of theater into a flourishing design career

Toni-Leslie James
Toni-Leslie James

From a young age, Theatre VCU Director of Costume Toni-Leslie James knew she would be involved in the theater. It just took her a while to figure out in what capacity.

As a freshman at Ohio State University, she auditioned for a play, but didn’t get the part; dabbled in set design, but still to this day can’t draw a straight line; and tried her hand at lighting, only to discover she’s afraid of electricity. Finally she took a costume design class and discovered she had a natural talent for it.

The rest is history.

Since her off-Broadway debut in 1990, James has been nominated for 19 costume design awards for her contributions to various theatrical productions, garnering a Tony Award nomination, three Drama Desk nominations, the American Theatre Wing Hewes Award and two additional Hewes Award nominations. Her work has been displayed nationally in feature films, television, opera, dance, industrials and in 13 Broadway productions. She’s currently working on her 14th Broadway show, “Finian's Rainbow,” which opens in the fall.

Most recently, she received The Village Voice Obie Award for Sustained Design Excellence at the 54th annual Obie Awards ceremony on May 18. The Obies celebrate excellence and achievement in Off-Broadway theater. And the exhibition "Curtain Call: A Century of Designing Women," a collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women featuring James’ work, soon will tour the country.

The seed for this illustrious career was planted years ago on a fateful field trip to see “Jack and the Bean Stalk” with her Girl Scouts troop. Ten years would pass before James would see another play, but from that moment, she was hooked.

“I always wanted to be in theater — I live in my head a lot,” she recalled, adding that she began reading all the plays she could get her hands on.

Yet years later when she enrolled at Ohio State, her family believed she was taking a different path.

“Allegedly I was going to Ohio State to take pre-dentistry,” she said. But at orientation when students majoring in the sciences were asked to go to left and students majoring in the arts were asked to go right, James picked up her bags and headed to the right. “At orientation I went with the arts students. I can’t believe I had the courage to do that. My mother completely flipped out. She did not know what I wanted.”

But James never had any doubt. It was as a college freshman that she finally saw her second play — “Awake and Sing.” Her passion was just as intense as it had been 10 years earlier. After not getting a part in a play for which she had auditioned, the theater department encouraged James to get involved with set design.

“I think they let me in, not because of my talent, but because I worked so hard,” she said.

It wasn’t long before it dawned on James that she wasn’t a very good set designer — drawing straight lines is, after all, integral to designing good sets — so she enrolled in a costume design class. And like Cinderella slipping effortlessly into the glass slipper, it was a perfect fit.

After graduating, James went on to New York, where her first job was as an usher for "One Mo' Time" at the Village Gate. Coincidentally, she would later design "One Mo' Time" on Broadway in 2002.

She met her husband, Australian David Higham, in 1980 while working as a wardrobe assistant on a 14-week Australian tour with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Higham was the lighting technician and follow spot operator for the production.

The couple lives in Brooklyn, where Higham works as a freelance theatrical and landscape lighting designer and teaches technical theater and film at Poly Prep Country Day School. James splits her time between New York and Richmond, where she teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I came down as a guest artist in 2006, and I fell in love with Richmond and this school,” she said. “I was completely encouraged in that when [Department of Theatre Chair] David Leong and Dean [Richard] Toscan spoke to me about coming to VCU, the School of the Arts was continuing to upgrade and provide professional opportunities to our students.

“I was brought in to enhance faculty and to provide different perspective and different support.”

At VCU she teaches Costume History and Costume Design.

“The level of creativity, talent and personal growth that I have witnessed with my students at VCU has been astounding. Teaching at VCU has allowed me to have insight into and a more focused approach to my professional designs. … I am grateful and humbled,” she said, noting that part of the Arts school mandate is to enhance the careers of its students.

Indeed, James needed to look no farther than her classroom when looking for an assistant for her latest project — the Broadway debut of “Finian’s Rainbow.” She tapped grad student Chris Mueller, who finished his thesis in costume design at VCU just last month.

Working a Broadway show fresh out of grad school is an accomplishment of which few can boast. Yet Mueller feels that James has given him something even more important: insight.

“The most important lesson is to not second-guess yourself and to be confident in what you’re doing,” he said. “Toni’s taken a vested interest in the students. She’s invested more than class time.”

Before embarking on the Broadway run of “Finian’s Rainbow,” James designed the costumes for the New York City Center Encores! production of the show — again assisted by Mueller. The Encores! series poses different challenges for the entire production team.

“It’s guerilla theater at it’s finest,” James explained. Everything — from the lights to the sets to the music — is put together in nine days. “You have nine days from the beginning of rehearsal to the live performance.”

James hopes all the attention from the recent Encores! performance and the upcoming Broadway run of “Finian’s” will benefit the School of the Arts.

“I’m hoping we can use it to recruit students to VCU,” she said. “I am firmly committed to recruiting for VCU. We have a terrific department, and the talent level is tremendous among our students.”