Arts academy goes beyond acting, directing

Costume design teacher Rachel Sypniewski stood over the three boys in her class, teaching them how to work the Chicago Academy for the Arts' brand-new sewing machines.

She was worried that they might struggle more than their seven female classmates.

“I was expecting major trauma like a broken machine or broken needles," she says.

But the boys turned in their sewing without a hitch, demonstrating they'd learned their lessons well in the academy's newest program -- costume design.

It’s one of a handful of specialized behind-the-scenes courses that the school offers in an effort to give students a taste of the full range of theatrical careers.

A $15,000 donation from a parent with costume design experience helped the class get off the ground.

The money also enabled the school to renovate its costume shop, transforming its collection from a dusty row of clothes racks to an organized closet that’s divided into varying categories dependent on style, period and hue.

Theater department chair Matthew Kerns says the new class is important because it broadens the horizons of his students.

When kids join the theater department, they all want to be actors because that’s what they’ve mostly been exposed to as a possible career path. But there are other important jobs in theater, he says.

“This class can show them there are so many more things for them to do,” Kerns says. “They can be a technician or a costume designer.”

In the costume class, kids start by making a pillowcase, and then a pair of pajamas.

Then, they will take measurements and making alterations to costumes for “The Book of Liz” and “The Pillow Man,” two upcoming school productions.

The goal for the kids is to be able to read a script and visualize a costume design for the production. It’s also to expose them to another career choice.

“When I was in high school, all I knew was acting,” Sypniewski says. “Then I went to college and I was introduced to costume design and I was thrown into an entirely different career.”

The changes at the school started last summer when parent Bronwen Leone went through the department’s old costumes.

Her 15-year-old daughter, Candace, attends the school as a music theater major. Leone, a former costume designer, thought she’d help out the department.

Leone says she found a wardrobe jumble of about 2,000 costumes, most of which was not organized.

“I went through every single costume and it took me four months,” says Leone, who’s an interior designer. “I threw out all the bad ones.”

But Leone was not done. While she had everything organized, by gender, time period and color, she didn’t have anywhere to put the costumes, except on an array of old racks that took up half a classrooom.

So her interior design firm in Hinsdale donated money for a set of closets flush to the wall and built to the ceiling. She also bought brand-new hangers for each costume.

The donation also paid for sewing machines, glue guns, needles, fabric, ironing boards and measuring tapes, which provided inspiration for a new class.

"The supplies gave them a real reason to have a class," Leone says.

The Chicago Academy for the Arts began about 27 years ago. Less than 200 kids attend the school, which requires an audition or porfolio review before admission in most cases.

The school is the only independent art school in the state and only one of five in the country that provide professional arts training, according to school officials.