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Tiia Lager helping student adjust blue costume on mannequin torso
costume sketches pinned to bulletin board
Tiia Lager pins sleeve of actor's costume
students hunched over table making paper costume patterns

Costume Design from Page to Stage

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

During the 17 years Tiia Lager(opens in new window) spent managing off-Broadway costume studios, she worked with many Carnegie Mellon University graduates. They left a memorable impression, she said, one that ultimately led to her working at the university.

“Graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama(opens in new window) were some of my favorite people to work with in New York,” Lager said. “Their training and the amount of work they managed here made them very well prepared to do the job. I can’t say enough about how well they collaborate with others to get amazing shows on stage.”

When Lager and her husband left New York for Pittsburgh in 2016, she was planning to be a stay-at-home mom. But an opportunity to manage the costume studio at CMU was one she couldn’t pass up.

“Coming from a professional background, I remember going in thinking we’re just going to do shows, and it’s going to be great! Then, I realized they don’t know how to do a show; they don’t know all the steps involved,” she said. “I learned quickly my job is to help them learn the logistics of taking the show from the page to the stage, and everything that falls in between.”

"Tiia is intelligent, capable, tactful, knows how to put out any fire that’s thrown at her, and she does it all under intense pressure with grace and style." — Matthew Torbet

Lager begins by arranging a launch meeting where costume designers(opens in new window) meet with the director to talk about the show. Then, she leads them through a series of design and budgeting steps and helps them navigate the costume studio and its staff, who assist with fittings and assembly. 

During the first week of rehearsal, she has the designer sit down with the actors to talk about who their character is and what kind of life their character has led. Helping the designers grow their relationships with the actors who perform in the shows is a top priority for Lager.

“Clothing helps the actors become their characters, and the actors have their own thoughts and opinions on the type of clothing their character would be wearing,” she said. “It is so important to build that relationship between the designer and the actor, so they can trust each other to help tell the character’s story.”

It’s a lot to juggle, considering the School of Drama’s costume studio supports 12-16 shows per year. In 2022, its gigantic warehouse of costumes and props was moved to a new facility, which Lager oversees. She also teaches a couple of classes.

All in a day’s work for Lager, who gets a rush from seeing an idea, a sketch on paper, brought to life. She says it’s the reason she has continued to do this job for 25 years. Mentoring the students at Carnegie Mellon has become the part she enjoys most.

“It’s so wonderful to watch the students grow as artists and as human beings, to watch them flourish during their time here. It’s almost like I’m watching my own child grow,” she said. “There are lots of challenges. Sometimes they drive me nutty! But I love what I do and who I do it with. It is pure joy for me to see a student acquire the skills they need to go out into the world and do this as a career.”

Costume design student uses phone to take photo of actore wearing a costume in progress

A student designer takes a photo on her phone of a costume's progress during a fitting with the actor.

Matthew Torbet has nothing but praise for Lager, who advised him throughout his assignment as costume studio manager for the performance of “Constellations.” In a word, he says she’s “fierce.”

“Tiia is intelligent, capable, tactful, knows how to put out any fire that’s thrown at her, and she does it all under intense pressure with grace and style,” Torbet said. “Having her guidance on what makes a great studio manager has been an extraordinary resource. She has done this job at the top of her craft for years, and to have her at CMU is a true blessing for us.”

Students also benefit from Lager always having her “ear to the pavement” regarding changes in the costume industry. Lager’s recent push for the studio to make available more colors of undergarments to match a broader range of skin tones is a reflection of the industry’s current focus. Attending seminars on hair color and texture increasingly helps her and others with options beyond throwing a wig on everybody.

"She works ... with patience, understanding and creativity, attending to each student's way of learning.” — Claudia Brownlee

Claudia Brownlee, a costume design Master of Fine Arts(opens in new window) candidate, said Lager never stops looking for creative and efficient ways to improve the students' experiences. 

“Not only does Tiia organize a well-functioning work and learning environment for students, but she also collaborates with faculty and staff to set the tone for the costume department,” Brownlee said. “She works with each student individually, providing them with the proper experience and etiquette of working professionally in a costume studio and on productions, and she does so with patience, understanding and creativity, attending to each student's way of learning.”

Tiia Lager standing in room full of sewing machines

Tiia Lager said graduates of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama(opens in new window) were some of her favorite people to work with in New York. The positive experience ultimately led her to accepting a position as costume studio manager at the university.

In New York, Lager managed costumes for Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons and the Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival. The off-Broadway runs of many plays she worked on are now produced around the world. 

Her most memorable experience was fitting an actor with padding to help transform him into a 700-pound man for a production of “The Whale,” which is now a movie starring Brendan Fraser.

CMU & the Tony Awards

left to right the first five winners of the Excellence in Theatre Education Award

Carnegie Mellon University is the exclusive higher education partner of the Tony Awards®(opens in new window)

As part of the collaboration, the two organizations launched the Excellence in Theatre Education Award(opens in new window)

The award is the first national recognition program to honor theatre educators in kindergarten through high school.

Take a look back at the first five award recipients(opens in new window).

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