Spotlight On Caitlin Cisek: Costume Design Edition

In Theatre Trip’s new “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most interesting and influential people in the theatre industry. And to kick off the new series, we had a great chat with costume designer Caitlin Cisek!

Caitlin Cisek was raised in New York City and is a member of the United Scenic Artists. She received her BA in theatre from the State University of New York at Albany and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. She has since been working as a costume designer, visual artist, and theatre educator.

What has been the biggest challenge that you have had to face in your career so far?

“In a word, balance. Money and art, time and energy, personal time and professional time, integrity and flexibility. And, maybe most importantly “yes and no”. The first five years out of graduate school I always said yes, no matter what the fee was, or the demands of the show: yes yes yes. I think that’s an important part of the career, figuring out the edges of what you’re capable of. But I’ve had to learn to balance that with saying “no” too. It was all quantity for a while, and I think quality suffered. But now i’m moving back to quality, and it has been much more fulfilling.”

Is there a moment in your career that you are especially proud of?

“It’s not a moment itself, it’s more a moment of realization. That realization that for every show you didn’t get, or every mistake you made, you’ve cultivated this community of artists and peers who support you and want to work with you. That never goes in the review, but it’s as much a measure of the quality of your craft as anything else. Right now, I’m designing This is Our Youth in Cape Cod. This is the 12th project that this director and I have worked on together. The sound designer and I even lived together in grad school, and I’m flying now to California to work with another colleague from my graduate school days. And when I’m waiting at the airport, I’m emailing folks I worked with 5 summers ago about projects for next fall. That’s a whole network of people who believe in each other and I’m exceptionally proud of that.”

“Make a list of things that inspire you. At some point you’re going to feel utterly and completely disconnected from art and your impulse to make it, and that list will come in handy.”

What advice would you give to an aspiring costume designer?

“I would advocate patience, both in the pursuit of jobs and in working style. You learn a lot less when you’re rushing, and you’re rushing when you’re overbooked. I’d advise aspiring designers to get comfortable with everything they don’t know. Be willing to look silly for asking the question once, rather than doing it wrong for a whole production. It’s easier on the heart. Also, make a list of things that inspire you. At some point you’re going to feel utterly and completely disconnected from art and your impulse to make it, and that list will come in handy.

Oh, and one more thing: trust yourself. If you’re thinking you need to go for a run in order to be able to design something, go for a run. If you need to finger paint all day before drawing, that’s cool too. Or if you need to make a Spotify playlist for each character, make it and then dance around the room to it. Don’t ever feel like there is a right way to get to the finish line. You can do it, and if you do it your way, you’ll have a lot more fun. Are there any specific skill sets or educational minimums that are required for this field? Not really. There are technical skills I would recommend: hand and machine sewing at a minimum. Basic figure drawing doesn’t hurt. If you learn to drape and pattern, even better. But all of that can be learned from books, YouTube, or a traditional classroom. The only requirement as far as I’m concerned is a desire to tell stories; to want to draw people in with the telling of a story and share that experience. Everything else is negotiable.”

Caitlin Cisek Headshot.
Photo by Esther Yumi Ko➝

Is there a specific play that you think all theatre professionals/students should read?

“Ha, this is nerdy, but Shakespeare. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s part of our collective culture as Western theater artists, and you can’t hate him til you read him. For me, the stories are exciting, the language is beautiful, and the opportunity for design is so very rich!”

Do you have a mentor (imaginary or real)?

“I have so many! My actual mentor is a fellow costume designer Deepsikha Chatterjee. She’s been teaching and advising me for almost 15 years now. And I’m grateful for all the times she looked at my work, told me it was terrible and made me do it over again. She challenged me to be a more exacting artist, but she’s also welcomed me into her home and into her family. She’s given me advice every step along the way in my own journey, and she’s never been afraid to look me in the eye and tell me I was wrong.

Other mentors would have to be the careers of other designers and artists I’ve really admired. And while you can’t follow someone else’s path, another designer’s success can be pioneering to your own goals. We have to keep discovering what we want to achieve.”

What are some common myths about your profession?

“That it’s glamorous and fashionable. A large portion of this job is getting a heavy bag of costumes from point A to point B, and that only gets harder if you’re wearing beautiful clothes and cute shoes. Gotta save those for opening nights and after parties!!”

Are there any online tools, websites, or resources that are helpful to you as a costume designer?

“Only about a million. But at the top of my list would be Pinterest. I find it really relaxing to go down the rabbit hole of images. I use it for research, but I can also spend hours looking at textures, or cosplay wig styling tips, it’s funny what can excite and inspire if you let it. In some ways it’s like a digital thrift store. You never know what you’ll find, and sometimes the unexpected item can inspire you the most.”

“While you can’t follow someone else’s path, another designer’s success can be pioneering to your own goals. We have to keep discovering what we want to achieve.”

If you could be an animal which one would you be?

“If I had to re-design myself in animal form I’d say I was a duck-billed platypus, because I’m not easy to categorize, and I’m a little bit silly, and I like to swim.”

Do you have any tips for staying in a creative flow?

“Get up. Stand up, move away from the screen or the desk. Go for a walk. Do a plank. As a professional you do have to, to a certain degree, be creative on demand. But in reality, sometimes you just can’t. Don’t force it. Do something else, and it will come back, sometimes as slowly as a nervous cat who hides when company comes over, and other times it will land on you like a ton of bricks. Talk about it. Tell someone a story. Tell your roommate when the play is terrible and only your design can save it.”

Why is theatre important?

“This is a tough one for me. In the neoliberalist-everyman-for-himself-social-media-addicted culture we’re living in, I think it’s hard to make a case for spending $50, $60, $70 (if not more) to sit in a dark room for two hours while other people demand your focus. We’ve been telling each other stories since we as a species were capable of telling stories. That’s not gonna go away. To be a theater artist right now is to challenge ourselves not only to make quality art, but to challenge how we make it.

I have my theories, but they’re just theories. Why is theater important– because as humans we have a fundamental need to tell stories, to experience lives beyond our own, to travel thousand miles without leaving town, theater is one of the ways we do that, together, almost touching.”

What did you think of this interview with Caitlin Cisek?

Are any of you working as or aspiring to be a costume designer? We would love to hear about your journey in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our theatre interviews with inspiring people in the industry!

Learn More:

Caitlin’s Instagram➝

Caitlin’s Website➝

*The featured photo is by Esther Yumi Ko➝

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Stacy Karyn, Author of Caitlin Cisek Interview.
Author: Stacy Karyn

Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She holds a BA in theatre, a TESOL drama certificate, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.


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