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Robert Haven: Making Sure the Show Goes on—in Style

by Jeff Worley
Photos by Alicia P. Gregory

Robert Haven loves his job at the University of Kentucky. He'd better. His average workweek is 80 to 90 hours long.

As assistant professor of costume technology and costume director at UK, Haven is responsible for overseeing all the costumes for a play—making many of these himself—and this can mean dozens of dresses, suits, hats, and various accoutrements. "It's horrifically labor-intensive," says Haven, who joined the theater department here in the fall of 2001. "We're in production now, and so I basically work all the time building costumes and teaching two classes. But the silver lining is, for me, it's really not work. I love it."

Photo of Robert HavenRobert Haven and his team, including student Kiralyn Davison pictured here, are preparing 30 costumes for the February 2005 UK Opera production "Madame Butterfly."

Haven's road to UK was, as the Beatles put it, long and winding. After getting his undergraduate degree in English education from Keene State College in New Hampshire, he spent 16 years teaching eighth-grade English in New Hampshire. During this time he also received his master's degree in school and community theater from Emerson College in Boston and, as part of his program, developed a year-round children's theater in New Hampshire called Kids Into Drama.

Photo of wigHaven's team will replicate the ornate Japanese hairstyles by constructing wigs with inexpensive black hairpieces.

After 10 years as director of this theater, Haven went to the University of Delaware for an MFA in costume production and shop management ("At 40, I went back to grad school again with a whole group of kids about half my age; it was like I was their father or uncle"), worked then for four years as costume shop manager at the University of Michigan, then took on the job of costume director at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. When a tenure-track position at UK was announced in 2001, Haven was interested.

"The Krannert Center is a terrific place, but all I did there was paperwork—boring stuff," says Haven, who was an adjunct faculty member there. "I didn't get to have fun with fabric at all," he adds, gesturing to the huge, open area beyond his office window where several students were sewing buttons and cutting patterns in soft afternoon sunlight.

Haven says that his interest in building costumes stems from his first stint in graduate school when, as part of his studies, he set up the children's theater. "That graduate project ended up running for about 10 years," says Haven, "long past the time when I'd graduated." He directed four shows a year, but wasn't only the director: he also made the costumes, and designed and built the sets.

Photo of embroideryHaven is embroidering a red silk wedding robe. "No opera company in this country has such an in-house, hand-embroidered piece," says Haven, who learned traditional stitching at the Japanese Embroidery Center in Atlanta.

"Early on in my graduate studies, I did an independent study of patterning. I collected all the books I could find about this, but all the patterns were scaled to adult figures. I was dealing with 12 year olds," Haven explains. So in designing the kids' costumes, he had to reduce all the sizes from the patterning books, the biggest challenge being, he says, "lots of geometry involved in doing this." But despite having to do the math, Haven realized this was a sort of epiphany for him. "I decided I really, really liked making costumes."

Since coming to the University of Kentucky, Haven has been responsible for, he guesses, building over 200 costumes. He's been involved in 14 shows, with a range of costuming from the heavy, period costumes of "As You Like It," set in the 1800s, to "The Glory of Living," set in the contemporary Deep South.

Photo of kimonosTwo of the kimonos Haven's team has completed for "Madame Butterfly"

"The Matchmaker," staged two years ago, gave Haven his biggest challenge. "Along with the men's costumes, we had to make, from scratch, six 1880s bustle-dresses, and these take a lot of time to do," Haven explains. "There were fitted bodices, an underskirt, and petticoats for each one—very time-intensive." Seven or eight undergraduates, who worked part-time at the studio, helped build these costumes.

Haven's partner in costume design and production is Nelson Fields, who came to UK in 1996 from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, where he was the resident costume designer for the East Carolina Playhouse. "When an actor walks onstage dressed in an appropriate costume, it all starts with Nelson, who draws the pictures, does the research and picks the fabrics. Then I take the pictures and make a pattern to fit the actor, top to toe," Haven explains.

"Working with Nelson is heaven," Haven says. "He's a designer who understands construction. He knows period costumes. He knows how things go together, and his renderings reflect that. Personally, I think it's an amazingly effective collaboration."

Fields agrees. "Bob is the consummate professional, and we've had a close working relationship from the beginning. I design the clothes, but Bob brings them to life," Fields says. He adds that as the new chairman of the theater department, he "sadly" won't be around the shop as much. "But I feel totally comfortable in turning it over to Bob," Fields says.

Photo of studentsStudents Daniel Townsend and Kiralyn Davison construct wigs.

Haven says his biggest challenge overall is getting everything done on time, before the first dress rehearsal. "I have this recurring nightmare before each dress rehearsal, and that's that we've totally forgotten an actor who, now, is standing around with no costume. So far," he says, knocking on his wooden desktop, "that hasn't happened."

What gives him the greatest job satisfaction?

"That's easy—seeing the finished production on stage, and seeing that the director's happy and the designer's happy. If they're happy, I'm happy."

Haven says he been very well supported since he's come to UK. "What sets the University of Kentucky apart from the other two universities where I've worked is that, here, they understand what it is I do, and they appreciate it. Plus, we have a wonderful space here—a whole row of north-facing windows—it's perfect!"