Professor prepares students and costumes for Broadway

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Toni-Leslie James
Toni-Leslie James

If you know Broadway, then you likely know the work of Toni-Leslie James.

Since her first Broadway musical in 1992, James — associate professor and director of costume design in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Theatre in the School of the Arts — has been a regular on the Great White Way, working as a costume designer on such standout shows as “Lucky Guy,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” “Footloose,” “Angels in America: Millenium Approaches & Perestroika” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” among others. During that time, she has accumulated an astonishing list of honors, both on Broadway and elsewhere, most recently including a nomination for a Lucille Lortel Award in Outstanding Costume Design for her work on the off-Broadway production “Milk Like Sugar.”

James joined Theatre VCU in 2007, and she has eagerly shared her vast experience, as well as the attendant prestige and opportunity, with her students and colleagues during her tenure, including hiring them to work with her on productions.

“I have such a tremendous support system at VCU, which includes my students and my colleagues,” James said. “And I have a tremendous support system outside. That’s why the relationships that you build and the training that you give your students are so important. When they [graduate] and I hire them as assistants … they’re basically me. When I’m not in the theater, they’re me. And that’s an important responsibility.”

Most recently, James, a Tony Award nominee in 1992 for “Jelly’s Last Jam,” has hired two of her graduates as assistants on a pair of Broadway-bound productions – “Bull Durham: A New Musical” and “Amazing Grace.”

Theresa Bush, a 2013 graduate of the M.F.A. program in the theater department, serves as assistant costume designer for “Bull Durham: A New Musical,” which recently finished its premiere run in Atlanta on Oct. 5 at the Alliance Theatre. She was in charge of costumes in James’ absence.

Bush was undaunted by the responsibility, noting that she was trained by an “excellent educator.”

“She works in the business, and she trains us to do so,” Bush said. “She also has an impeccable eye, a spot-on intuition and 40 years of experience working at full tilt. She is a woman of discerning tastes and has the highest standards for herself and everyone in her sphere, and she has elevated me to a level that I did not know I could reach.”

Costume design and actors from "Bull Durham: A New Musical." Photo by Greg Mooney
Costume design and actors from "Bull Durham: A New Musical." Photo by Greg Mooney

As for the “Bull Durham” costumes, Bush said they commissioned reproduction vintage baseball uniforms, “which just make your mouth water they are so delicious.”

Unlike “Bull Durham,” “Amazing Grace,” a musical set in the 18th century, requires the custom creation of all its costumes. The play is making its pre-Broadway premiere in Chicago at the Bank of America Theatre from Oct. 9 to Nov. 2.

“Building an entire show from head-to-toe — or rather tricorne-to-buckled shoe — is a rare opportunity,” said Josh Quinn, James’ assistant costume designer for “Amazing Grace” and a 2013 graduate of the M.F.A. program. “We have had to construct almost everything from scratch [which] means that every fabric, button, trim, cord, feather and edge has been carefully chosen and brought together to create a singular article of clothing. Now combine these garments all together and you are very much confronted with a jigsaw puzzle of costumes, some of which then need to be further aged and dyed to fit the look of a certain scene.”

To accomplish this work, Neno Russell, Theatre VCU’s director of costume technology, hired a team of more than 10 VCU theater students and alumni over the summer to produce 115 of the show’s more than 160 costumes.

“It takes about 15 people to put one dress on stage, and people don’t realize that,” James said. “It’s not just the designer; it takes a village.”

Luckily, James has a pool of talented students and alumni to draw from. After all, a central purpose of VCU’s theater program is to help students find jobs in a highly competitive field.

“We provide an entrance into working in professional theater,” James said. In the case of a production such as “Bull Durham,” her former students are working at a particularly high level. “We go from [the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta] — a Tony-award winning regional theater — to Broadway. And that’s about as high as you can get if you have a degree in theater.

“The reason our students are able to find jobs out of VCU — whether at undergraduate or graduate level — is because we put as much emphasis on the business of theater as we do on pure theoretical design.”

A critical business component for costume designers is the paperwork that each production requires, and the VCU costume design program makes meeting industry standards for the materials a point of emphasis. James said that knowing how to do this paperwork — known as the “production bible” — is what gets most assistants jobs.

“It’s what we work from,” she said. “It has copies of all the color sketches, copies of each and every swatch for every costume, where it came from. It has all of the budget. It has all of the flowchart, which is basically the chart where everybody’s costume changes are computed. It also has every invoice, every contact; it’s the one place that has all of the information about every step in the process of generating the costumes onstage.”

Costume shops love that James is so serious about her preproduction planning, Bush said.

“We are so well prepared by the time the show goes into production that we are able to achieve a great deal very quickly without pain and suffering,” she said.

A team led by VCU's Toni-Leslie James is creating the costumes for "Amazing Grace" "from tricorne-to-buckled-shoe"
A team led by VCU's Toni-Leslie James is creating the costumes for "Amazing Grace" "from tricorne-to-buckled-shoe"

“Amazing Grace” provides the perfect example of needing to stay on top of the budget and paperwork.

“It’s such an expensive period to reproduce,” James said. The chance to reproduce those costumes on a Broadway show proved irresistible.

“I’m so grateful,” James said. “‘Amazing Grace’ is a risky business because they have scheduled a completely commercial production,” which means that — given positive reviews — the production “will pick up and go straight to Broadway” and that “everyone who’s working on [‘Amazing Grace’] is getting paid a Broadway salary.”

Costume design is a difficult profession to break into, particularly in New York and regional theaters. That’s where James’ students’ hard work has a tangible reward: When VCU costume design students graduate, “they’re able to go into the field because they have something more in their hands than a pretty drawing of a costume,” she said.

Quinn says that studying with James taught him “the value of constant learning and adaptation while progressing through a project.

“We often define ourselves as storytellers through clothing,” Quinn said. “There is a great deal that goes into that. For example, technical knowledge about the way fabrics behave and will or will not make a garment you desire, professional management in dealing with vendors and financial accounts, and diplomacy working with directors, producers, actors, shops and other designers are all tasks we face every day.

“You have to be able to move and make discoveries with your team and … it doesn't hurt to keep a good sense of humor when things don't always go your way.”

For Bush, the three years she spent under James’ tutelage were “the most transformative” of her life.

“[James] says that you must have a ‘desire to evolve’ in order to make it in this business,” Bush said. “Evolve every aspect of your life: your design work, your business skills, your study and teaching habits, your attitude and your energy.”

Bush applauds James’ efforts to transform VCU’s costume department into “a powerhouse for young designers.” In addition to procuring a state-of-the-art design lab, James “recognized that her students were lacking in figure drawing strength compared to the work of students from equivalent programs, so she provided [them] with a figure drawing instructor and made the class mandatory.”

About a year ago, when James found herself overwhelmed with projects, she decided — for the first time ever — to use a costume illustrator to expedite her work. And, unsurprisingly, she reached for one of her former students, Gloria Kim, “an absolutely brilliant illustrator” who graduated with a B.F.A. in theater in 2013.

Looking ahead, James has a number of other current and upcoming projects that will keep her going — full tilt — for the foreseeable future, beginning with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys,” under the direction of Susan Stroman at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End. Graduate student Emily Atkins will be assisting James on Joel Drake Johnson's “Rasheeda Speeking,” under the direction of Cynthia Nixon at The New Group in New York. Theresa Bush will again assist James on Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” under the direction of Rebecca Taichman at the Yale Repertory Theatre. And graduate student Devario Simmons will help James with Kimber Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” under the direction of Eric Ting at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

“I’m old,” says James, “and I’m part of the establishment. But anytime I can do a small project with a young, new director … and a new playwright with new work, it’s very important. That means I can stay intellectually fresh and in it. The only way you stay viable is if you continue to work with new people. And I’m honored when I get to work with new people who are not part of the establishment but are just breaking in in a major way.”


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