In a theatrical production, the costumes are often the first connection that the audience forms with the characters––even before those characters speak. Costumes can set the tone for a play and help define the characters themselves. Sammi Santini, a senior in Psychology at Virginia Tech, designed the costumes for the main stage production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the 2011 fall season. As the only undergraduate designer involved, she was given a budget of $2,400 to fashion a total of 23 costumes. Santini collaborated with the play’s director, Greg Justice, and her senior design professor, Jane Stein, to come up with the perfect inspiration for the pieces: a cross between Joel Grey, Queen Elizabeth I, and Lady Gaga. Over a period of six months, Santini designed the costumes, purchased materials for construction, and completed the final garments worn in the thirteen-show production.

Santini has been working behind the scenes on plays since high school, starting with set design and making her way on to the costume crew. After matriculating at Virginia Tech, she gained more responsibility by working on productions as a stage manager. Last spring, Santini worked on the show Dog Sees God. “I was mainly a dresser,” Santini stated. “The clothes were all very normal and everyday, so I just had to stay within the budget.” Santini’s experience with the show, as well as her work in her senior design class, helped secure her the position as the undergraduate costume designer for Twelfth Night.

In discussing the design department at Virginia Tech, Santini stated that “it is very close-knit, with only about six of us in the senior design course.” Therefore, in choosing a student to ultimately run the show, Santini’s senior design professor, Jane Stein, took into consideration the strength of the student’s work as well as the experience each student had “I’m the only one in that field who has done another show. We do four main stage productions, so everyone rotates on those, but our professor chose me for this one,” said Santini. Once she’d been assigned Twelfth Night Santini began a conversation with Justice and Stein for the inspiration of the design.

Plans for the show began during the spring of 2011, long before Twelfth Night’s opening on November 3. The formula for the production’s look and feel came from the combined efforts of director Justice and dramaturg Karl Precoda. They envisioned this production of Twelfth Night as a combination of influences from Lady Gaga, Lawrence Welk, and Ethel Merman, all rather surprising choices for a Shakespeare adaptation. With these general concepts in mind, Justice met with his creative team, including the set, lighting, and costume designers. “When [Justice] came in, he gave us some sketches he had already done,” Santini recalled. “They gave me a starting point, and I just went from there. I’d occasionally check in with the director to make sure I was going down the right path.”

Santini was tasked with creating costumes for all the characters. By the end, she had created 23 costume variations, some of which needed to transform as the scenes dictated. “The research is just a continual process,” Santini explained. “A lot of the research and work for something creative like this is really just looking at some designs, scrapping them, and starting over. I think I drew the costumes for the opening number about five times before I found a design I was happy with.” Santini worked for most of the summer molding a variety of inspirations into a cohesive collection of costumes. The anachronistic blend of modern pop idols and vaudevillian stars offered Santini an opportunity to push the bounds of creativity, providing many different challenges from her work on Dog Sees God.

Santini spent most of the summer finalizing the designs for the show, but in many ways, the real challenge was bringing those early concepts to life within a relatively limited amount of time. As soon as the fall semester began, Santini was hard at work overseeing the construction of the costumes, providing new materials and recycled pieces from previous productions to the design department, as everyone feverishly worked to complete all the costumes

“I wasn’t fully aware of how much of a time commitment it would be once we got into production,” she recalled about the challenges that arose as preproduction began. “I don’t have a car, but I had to be out buying stuff all the time. You’re really invested in the show—doing fittings, finding material—and you’re just thinking about the show all the time. I was up at 9:00 every day, working on something.”

With the completion of the costume design and assembly, Santini’s final job was to watch the show, see how her costumes fared, and observe the reactions of the audience. When asked how she felt seeing her costumes on stage, Santini admitted, “It was stressful watching [the performance]. The second night of the show I was sitting in the audience thinking, ‘I can’t sit here while people are judging everything!’” However, with the final production of the show over, Santini smiles and states, “I was really happy with it.”

Santini certainly has reason to be happy. The theatre department’s production of Twelfth Night was incredibly well-received, opening to packed houses and glowing reviews. The show’s audacious design seems to have succeeded in reimagining Shakespeare’s timeless characters for a modern audience, and Santini’s costumes are practically characters unto themselves—bold, dramatic creations infused with a human subtlety—that are likely to be remembered long after the final curtain call.