MISSOULA – University of Montana graduating senior Morgan Brooks’ budding career in the theater started in a rather unconventional way – through 4-H.
Raised in Ronan with a menagerie of pets, Brooks joined the youth organization not only to compete in animal husbandry but also sewing, a skill she would go on to apply in competitions and eventually her studies in costume design in UM’s School of Theatre and Dance.
Among her early accolades were state and national placements in Make it With Wool competitions, which are supported by the American Sheep Industry.
“In this competition you make garments completely of wool,” Brooks said, noting that among her winning creations were a biker-styled jacket and pencil skirt. “My family didn’t actually raise sheep – my Dad would have put his foot down on that – but my sewing teacher was involved in the industry, and she suggested I compete.”
While in high school, Brooks developed a keen interest in plays and costume design – “acting wasn’t my thing” – going on to spend the first two years of her collegiate studies at Flathead Valley Community College, where she enrolled in the theater arts transfer track and served as costume shop manager.
During the summer she worked at Bigfork Summer Playhouse, honing her early skills and learning the hierarchy of costume design.
“The stitcher is the lowest rung, and then you work your way up from there to costume designer,” she explained.
She chose UM to continue her studies because she liked the costume design program and the lower tuition made completing her degree more affordable. UM offers a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in theatre with an emphasis in design and technology.
She said her classes have been steeped not only in the technical aspects of her craft – pattern making, tailoring, textiles – but also in the history of dress through the centuries.
“I really like the bustle period. I chose that for my senior project,” Brooks said, adding that the materials cost $300. “It is super detailed, with an underskirt and an overskirt.”
Because of her past experience, Brooks joined the program with an extremely strong set of sewing skills, as well as theater construction and design experience, said Paula Niccum, supervisor of UM’s costume shop.
“Morgan’s always hungry for more knowledge and has never been afraid to take on a complex project,” Niccum said. “She’s been an exceptional role model for younger students interested in costuming.”
UM Professor Alessia Carpoca, head of design and technology in the school, has watched Brooks grow in her technical abilities and understanding of the full breath of costume design, which includes not only historical elements but character inspiration as well. Her skills were fully on display, Carpoca said, in “Machinal,” one of the last plays of the 2021-22 season where Brooks served as the costume designer.
“Designing costumes for ‘Machinal’ was a difficult task because the play has a large cast and different actresses play the leading role in different scenes,” Carpoca said. “Morgan stepped up the plate and did a beautiful job. Her work was really gorgeous.”
The work of a costume designer doesn’t end when the play’s a wrap. Brooks and teammates also are responsible for cleaning and storing costumes.
“We have three places on campus for storage. But it’s always a discussion about how much more can we fit into tiny closets,” she said with a chuckle.
Now that she is about to graduate, Brooks is already under contract to work on costumes for a movie that will be produced in Montana.
“I want to do more freelance work,” she said, “but I still hope to have some time to sew for fun.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.