A fresh approach: Broadway costume designer joins ISU Theater department

Sara Jablon, graduate assistant and student in apparel, events, and hospitality management, created the individual costumes and outfits worn by the actors in Iowa State’s theatre department’s play, “Spring Awakening.” Before returning to Iowa State to pursue a PhD, Jablon gained her experience in costume design from working in Broadway productions for over 10 years.

Michaela Ramm

Theater is theater to one Broadway veteran who has worked on ISU Theatre’s latest production, all while taking an unusual route toward her degree.

Sara Jablon was this year’s guest costume designer for ISU Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening,” which had its last performance Oct. 12.

This is not Jablon’s first backstage experience in a theater production. Before coming to ISU Theatre, Jablon had worked for major theater productions on Broadway in New York City.

Jablon had worked 12 years on Broadway for major productions, including “The Lion King,” “Rent,” “Cabaret” and “Urine Town.” She spent 10 years on “The Lion King” alone, working in wardrobe as a dresser.

“It’s fun, but it’s work just like everything else,” Jablon said. “We compare it to Groundhog Day a lot, because it is literally the same. It can get a little numbing, but I would have never given it up.”

Jablon began her training in high school, and continued the profession for most of her life. She moved to New York City after obtaining her undergraduate degree and attained a Masters in Fine Arts from New York University.

Jablon was chosen as this year’s guest costume designer for the first show in ISU Theatre’s 100 year celebration, “Spring Awakening.” This is her second consecutive year as the theater’s guest costume designer.

The process of designing costumes for a theater production includes a lot of collaboration with the director. As a costume designer, it is Jablon’s job to translate the director’s vision onto the actors.

“The costume designer is in charge of what people will wear,” Jablon said. “It starts with reading the script a lot, and going to meetings where you just do a lot of talking.”

She said she best translates her ideas into reality by sketching.

“Once we settled with an idea, I start sketching, which is how I make my decisions,” Jablon said. “I do a sketch for every character and show them to the director. Then, she approves it or changes it.”

Once the design is approved, it becomes Jablon’s job to acquire the costumes.

“That could mean buying it, bargaining shopping, borrowing them or using what Iowa State already has,” Jablon said. “Then we do fittings and make sure everything looks the way it should. After dress rehearsals and the show runs, my job is done.”

Stacy Hansen, 1992 ISU alumna and language arts teacher at Valley High School in West Des Moines, was the production’s guest director.

“Our process really began to take shape about last May,” Hansen said. “We collaborate on the vision and have that dialogue. We really go back and forth, hitting ideas off of one another.”

Hansen said “Spring Awakening” was greatly benefited by Jablon’s work.

“Sara and the artistic team are just incredibly generous with their talent,” Hansen said. “Sara can take ideas and just make them fly off the stage. It was a great opportunity to learn and grow from her.”

Andre Johnson, the stage manager for “Spring Awakening” and senior in performing arts, said he learned a lot by working with Jablon.

“It was great to not only work with someone who holds themselves so professionally, but someone who comes into every meeting with very clear and detailed ideas,” Johnson said. “I learned from [Jablon] that if you are going to be good and do amazing things as she has, you have to be sure about your ideas, [be] organized and act in a respectful and professional manner.”

The move to Ames from New York came after Jablon decided to switch career paths. Jablon had an opportunity to teach a class for a semester in New York, and found that she loved doing it.

“Teaching was something I always liked, but then I moved away from it,” Jablon said. “I moved back into it in New York, and I just really loved it. I have always been a backstage person, so it was like a performance to me. I really enjoy it, and I think I’m good at it.”

After her experience with teaching, Jablon found that she wanted a change in her life.

“I started working full time while teaching, and it got to the point where I realized that I would have to pick one,” Jablon said. “I thought I had done what I could in New York, and I really wanted to focus on teaching.”

In order to teach, Jablon would have to receive a Ph.D., which she resisted at first.

“I resisted, but then I realized there was a lot of opportunity there to leave the East Coast and see the rest of the country,” Jablon said.

Iowa State drew Jablon’s attention for having one of the best Ph.D. programs in fashion and apparel in the country.

“Iowa State had the most professors I was interested in working with, the most classes I was interested in taking,” Jablon said.

When applying for graduate programs, Jablon said she was very specific in her search. She is pursuing an aspect of the study that is new and largely unheard of.

“Not everyone has been confident in me when I’ve been trying to explain what I was looking for,” Jablon said. “There were a lot of programs who said it was not for them.”

To attain a Ph.D., one must study the theory of a subject, rather than the practice of it. It is unusual for people in Jablon’s area of study to attain a Ph.D., since fashion and apparel is a practical study rather than a theoretical study.

Jablon is researching the social and sociological aspect of clothing throughout history with an emphasis on costume design. She said it has been a bit of a learning experience.

“I don’t have a social science background and the research I’ve done my whole life is completely different than the research we do here,” Jablon said. “Most costume designers I know think I’m crazy, and fashion people don’t always understand my background. So it’s been a bit of a curve.”

Despite her unusual path, she has found plenty of support at Iowa State.

“Everyone is very nurturing,” Jablon said. “We have amazing professors, and they are very welcoming. It’s hard work, but it’s fulfilling and challenging and I’m learning so much.”

Jablon is among the first individuals to look at this aspect of fashion and costume design. She said people are just starting to think about this aspect of the study. A conference on the subject started last year, and a journal may soon be published within the next year.

“I feel like there are people here who are eager to see me take this research agenda farther. There is no one else doing this, and I have an opportunity to start a niche,” Jablon said. “It’s exciting, and there are professors who are excited for me and are interested to see where I can take it.”

Jablon plans to finish her degree by May of 2016. After obtaining her degree, she plans to teach at the college level. She plans on using her experiences working for Broadway and other theater productions in her classroom, and hopes to share them with her students.