Down in the depths of the Sage Center for the Arts, there’s a windowless room full of fabrics, clothes, and cheerful student workers. On any given day, Bryan Simmons will be pinning dresses on mannequins or sewing buttons onto a coat, all while humming to whatever might be playing on his radio.
This is the costume shop, the place where all of the apparel for the theatre department’s productions are created. James Brandon, chairman and professor of theatre and dance, says that, though there are no windows, “there’s a positive vibe there” because of Simmons. But most students probably don’t know Simmons, the man responsible for creating the detailed and dazzling costumes for Hillsdale’s stage.
Bryan Simmons, costume designer and lecturer in theatre, was described by senior theater major Brooke Benson as the “heart and soul” of the theatre department.
Simmons came to Hillsdale in 2002 after a year of freelance costuming work. His wife, Jill, actually attended Hillsdale as a student — and worked in the costume shop — before she graduated in 1985. Since coming to teach at Hillsdale, Simmons has mentored many students and designed costumes for every show performed in Markel Auditorium.
His wife often comes into the shop to help later on in the costume-making process.
“Getting to watch them work together is fabulous,” Benson said. “She’s so quick. He’s got these magnificent, wonderful designs, and she has his designs ready.”
Bryan and Jill even worked together outside of the costume shop to create Benson’s wedding dress.
But Simmons also works well with the other theatre faculty and students.
Benson said she sees a good relationship between Simmons and Lighting Designer Michael Beyer, as the two have worked closely for so many years. They have always done well collaborating, she said.
“In general, that’s not normal; that’s not common to have that kind of relationship and understanding between designers,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to see, and Bryan really tries to foster that.”
His job, Simmons says, has both challenges and rewards. As the only costumer on campus, he wears many different hats.
“One of the challenges of being a one-man shop, basically, is that I’m not just the costume designer,” he said. “I have the responsibilities of designing the costumes — coming up with the visual look — but then another component of my job is the shop managing, making sure the costumes get built, purchased, or altered. I’ve got two pretty distinct jobs that are linked together. But I could be just a teacher, I could be just a designer, I could be just the manager of the shop. That’s the challenge of weaving all of that together and still hopefully pass on the knowledge to others.”
Even though he is spread in multiple directions, Simmons says Hillsdale is fortunate to have someone in each of the three areas of technical theatre, as well as other professionals.
“Our department is pretty amazing in the fact that we have a lighting person, a scenic person, and a costume person,” he said. “We have a historian, we have directors, we have a dance instructor. It’s pretty amazing for a college our size to have that many trained people. We’re pretty darn lucky.”
Another challenge Simmons faces is balancing time and skill.
“We try to have a cohesive vision of where we’re headed, and we try to make it more than just throwing it on stage,” he said. “We try to make it well-thought out and united in whatever the show is supposed to be. You run into things like not enough time, not enough people who have the skills. One of my favorite things is teaching people who can’t sew and then showing them little steps that they can build on to do that. It’s something that is so exciting, but when you only have so much time to get something done, how do you balance teaching somebody versus sitting down and doing it?”
But for Simmons, the reward outweighs the challenges. And that reward in his mind is getting to teach students new things they can use in theater.
“The reward is when somebody comes in and you’re able to give them some new tools,” he said. “When they’re able to use them, they can make something and see it on stage and say, ‘I was a part of that.’ I really like that. I wish that could happen more. That comes in with the teaching part I like so much.”
The dynamic between theatre professors and their students is one of a close mentorship. The theatre professors all insist that their students call them by their first names, including Simmons. For the recent production of “The Seagull,” Simmons was able to work with a theatre major more closely. Benson chose to do her senior project in makeup design, one of the things Simmons teaches.
“When you do a senior project, you have an advisor who gives you the outline of your project and mentors you as you go through, does check ups and things like that,” Benson said. “Because of the time crunch, makeup has been something kind of put to the last minute. With ‘The Seagull,’ Bryan was really excited to have a completed design. It enhances the costume design; it works in conjunction with it. Working with Bryan was really great because my job was to synthesize with everything he created.”
Benson is not the only one who enjoys working with Simmons. Her husband, junior Austin Benson, agrees that Simmons is an easy person to work with.
“His pedagogy is very gentle. You never feel like you’ve made some sort of crucial error. He’s always willing to guide you,” he said.
Brandon said Simmons is a vital member of the theatre department.
“He has tremendous skill, and he’s great to work with. I’ve mostly worked with him as a director over the years,” Brandon said. “He’s extremely collaborative; he’s easy to get along with; he’s very communicative. He understands my ideas, and he expressed his own ideas very well, so I feel like Bryan and I can come to a rapport very quickly as to the direction a show is going to go.”
As a director, Brandon said Simmons is reliable and never misses a deadline for costumes.
“I’m always confident in the process with Bryan,” he said. “He’s one of those designers where I might say something three months before the show opens, and I know that it’s never been forgotten. I’m not just throwing ideas out into the air; he listens and responds.”
Brandon said he enjoys going down to the basement of Sage to check in with Simmons and just spend some time with him.
“We enjoy talking about the show, but we also enjoy talking about the college, the country, and the arts,” Brandon said.
Simmons’ first experience with the theatre was in helping build sets for his high school’s drama department. He eventually got a degree in interior design and worked in a showroom for architects and designers. It was there he discovered he liked working with fabric more than wood, metal, or other materials typically associated with scenic design. He went back to school for a degree in technical theatre with an emphasis on costume design. Simmons came to Hillsdale because he wanted to work in a small community, something a larger school would not give him.
But regardless of what he is working on, Bryan Simmons always comes back to students and teaching.
“It’s so clear that Bryan wants what is best for the students and is willing to take the extra time to guide them and answer questions,” Brandon said. “That comes through. The students that work closely with Bryan understand that he brings a lot to the table for them.”