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Illuminations Blog: Dina El-Aziz: Costume Design is Not for the Undecided

Porsche McGovern • Illuminations • March 11, 2020

Dina El-Aziz. Photo: Nagham Osman

I met Dina El-Aziz through a mutual friend online. Dina El-Aziz is a British-Egyptian Costume Designer, currently residing in New York. A graduate of the Design for Stage and Film MFA program at NYU Tisch School for the Arts, Dina has worked on theatre productions in NYC, and regionally in the US. Her most recent productions include P*ssy C*ck Know Nothing (Target Margin), King Lear (Northern Stage) and Noura (both The Guthrie and The Old Globe), and Selling Kabul (Williamstown Theater Festival). Her upcoming production The Vagrant Trilogy will run at The Public Theater. You can see more of Dina’s work at: www.dinae.me

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I’ve always said it’s a double-edged sword. Two years after graduating from my MFA program, I was still being told I didn’t have enough experience to assist. I’ve always had a nervous temperament, so I thought perhaps that was why people didn’t want to hire me. But I know I don’t give myself enough credit. Generally it feels like designers of color have to go above and beyond to be recognized as equally as capable as their white counterparts.

Yasmina’s Necklace for Premier Stages at Kean University. Director: Kareem Fahmy. Playwright: Rohina Malik. Scenic Designer: David M. Barber. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Cha See. Sound Designer & Composer: Fan Zhang. Props: Helen Tewksbury. Fine Art: Ahmad Abdulrazzaq. Production Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Yasmina’s Necklace for Premier Stages at Kean University. Director: Kareem Fahmy. Playwright: Rohina Malik. Scenic Designer: David M. Barber. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Cha See. Sound Designer & Composer: Fan Zhang. Props: Helen Tewksbury. Fine Art: Ahmad Abdulrazzaq. Production Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood. Photo: Maria Baranova.

On the other hand, I worked on a number of smaller MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian) shows. As an Egyptian designer, I was able to connect to the community and collaborate with directors and writers, who then recommended me for more work and larger regional work. My regional work usually is something MENASA related. In a weird way, it pigeon-holed me in some aspects, but opened the door to bigger opportunities. I didn’t find these opportunities by the traditional assisting route, but mostly from directors, playwrights, and producers from the MENASA community, as well as theater companies that I have ongoing collaborations with, such as Target Margin.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?
I grew up in England and moved to Egypt when I was eighteen. When I was growing up, my family was traditional, expecting that I would study medicine or business. Being in an artistic career was not something they had planned for. I fought against it for a long time, and gave up for a little while. My mother encouraged me in undergrad to study art, and not long after I realized I wanted to be a costume designer. Eventually, I studied at NYU.

It’s an industry where lots of people want you to do a ton for free or very little pay. Particularly in costumes, they want you to also do wardrobe, and wigs and makeup. But they don’t want to pay two or three salaries. So I’ve reached the point where when people ask me to recommend specifically PoC designers, but the pay is very low, I just say I don’t know anyone. Many of us are at a financial disadvantage to our white counterparts, so I want to make sure there are better opportunities for us.

How to Defend Yourself at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Director: Marti Lyons. Playwright: Lily Padilla. Scenic Designer: Kimie Nishikawa. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Heather Gilbert. Sound Designer: Luqman Brown. Movement Director: Stephanie Paul. Fight Director: Drew Fracter. Dramaturg: Jesse Reese. Stage Manager: Jan Hubert. Photo: Crystal Ludwick.

What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theatre career to know?  Is there any advice you wish you’d be given?
I think it’s not for the undecided. There are so many things stacked against you to begin with, and so much you have to prove. It can’t be a career you’re not sure about. You should be passionate about this- otherwise, it’s not worth it. It can be so draining and demotivating to see other people do well, especially when you’re stuck. There’s not just one path to designing. If you have one bad experience, there are other paths. Someone who isn’t invested can be easily put off.

The advice I wish I’d be given would be spend less time worrying and getting the class project perfect, and more time getting professional experience. Grad school is so valuable, but you need to balance it with real life experiences. Arm yourself with enough skills and experience so you can present your best self after graduation.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?
A huge part of why I’m here is my teachers in undergrad, Jeanne Arnold, Frank Bradley, Stancil Campbell, and David Wlodarski. I was this 18-year-old who didn’t really know what she wanted to do. I took an art class and the teacher was the costume designer for the theatre department. I went to help out in the shop. They took me under their wing. They encouraged me to go through the backstage part of it first, then assist, and design. They had such faith in me that I would assist one semester and design the next. They helped prepare me in a way I haven’t experienced since graduating from undergrad. They encouraged me to go for it more than anyone.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
I assisted Sarita Fellows in grad school. She’s amazing.  Whenever I assisted her she would always take the time to explain why she needed the things that she was looking for which I found to be a valuable learning experience. For instance, swatching has never been my forte. But she’d send me out swatching after she’d explain properties of the fabrics she needed and why it was important in the making of the garment. I felt like I got so much real-life experience through assisting Sarita, who did it in the kindest, most patient way.

Selling Kabul at Williamstown Theater Festival. Director: Tyne Rafaeli. Scenic Designer: Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever. Sound Designer: Beth Lake. Production Stage Manager: Brett Anders. Photo: Joseph O’Malley.

Is there anything about costume design you wish all your collaborators knew?
I just think people should understand when costume designers ask for help, we need the help. If we need more room or more storage or more bodies, it’s not because we’re trying to throw our weight around. People see the final product and think it’s just clothes. It’s not just clothes- it’s a lot of trial-and-error. I wish there was more patience and more help for us.

King Lear at Northern Stage. Director: Stephen Brown Fried. Scenic Designer: Bill Clarke. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Dan Kotlowitz. Sound Designer: Kate Marvin. Fight Choreographer: David S. Leong. Production Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard. Photo: Kata Sasvari.

Pay No Attention to the Girl at Target Margin. Director & Deviser: David Herskovits. Scenic Designer: Carolyn Mraz. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Kate McGee. Sound Demon: Jesse Freedman. Production Stage Manager: Michael Fernandez-Fortna. Photo: Kelly Stuart.

 

 

 

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