When Christopher Aceves ’22 was asked to create costumes for Concordia’s theatre presentation of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a mid-twentieth-century dystopian play, he confesses to having been “scared out of my wits because it’s such a hard piece of theatre,” he recalls.
But rather than emulate what other designers had done over the decades, Aceves “went offline” and pushed himself to come up with “something completely original and uniquely my own.”
The result is that Aceves became the first student at Concordia University Irvine—and possibly the first at any Concordia—to ever win a national award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). “I feel absolutely incredible,” says Aceves. “It gets me excited to see what’s to come.”
Aceves actually received two awards: the KCACTF National Costume Design Award, which may be the nation’s highest collegiate costuming award, and the National Partners of the American Theatre Costume Design award. No Concordia student before Aceves had progressed to KCACTF nationals, let alone won the top prize.
“I’m still kind of in shock that he won,” says theatre professor Lori Siekmann. “He made history for Concordia. Some of the other nominees are in graduate programs for costume design. This makes it even more of a feat that Christopher’s work was deemed exceptional over students who have graduate-level training.”
Aceves, from Boyle Heights, is also a gifted sketch artist, actor, and writer, but only began focusing on costume design last year.
“I love how hands-on I can be with costuming. Every little stitch, anything I can paint on my costumes, I can go full force,” he says.
But designing costumes for Endgame presented a significant challenge. The somewhat nihilistic play depicts a group of people trapped in a basement for years and too afraid to go outside because “outside is death” and perhaps the remnants of a global armageddon event. They desperately—and futilely—search for meaning in their underground existence.
“We do these classic works of literature because we understand people [like playwright Beckett] lived through really difficult times,” says Siekmann. “This is a challenging, existential play with a lot of deep, philosophical and metaphorical things going on.”
Further, Endgame has an established, iconic look which Siekmann calls “people in tattered nightgowns, all raggedy and distressed like they’ve been down there wasting away.”
Aceves eschewed any input from the past and instead studied the script and decided the characters should personify pieces in the game of chess, reflecting the chess term, “Endgame.” He made the king character look stern and strong. He used the rook’s and bishop’s lengths to make them appear ghostly and pale in color—“otherworldly but rooted in the same reality as each other,” he says.
“Chris brought his idea and it meshed really well with what faculty director Tony Vezner wanted to do with the show,” Siekmann says. “Chris subtly incorporated the look of different chess pieces based on what the character was in the show. The layers of thought that went into the design were just insane. It was a great collaboration in terms of subtle, metaphorical things he did with his design.”
Costume design requires students to closely analyze scripts and answer questions such as, What time period are we in? What is happening? Where are these people? It also requires understanding the characters and what they would choose to wear.
Making costumes proved to be Aceves’ favorite part. “There’s a process to destroying things,” he says somewhat gleefully. “I had to think about the fact that they’d been in a bunker for 30 years. What does the human body do to clothing? How does clothing react to sweat? I thought of every aspect of what could be in that bunker.”
He added 30-plus years of effects from decay, sweat, food stains, dirt, rainwater, weather, and insect damage. An airbrush tool helped convey the look of layered sweat that had built up over time.
Then he considered the nuclear blast which might have forced the people into hiding, and imagined every character on a scale of how far away they were from the blast. Using a lighter and a spray bottle, he added burns big and small, plus sooty scorch marks and a glue-and-charcoal mix, which gave the appearance of compacted ash.
The layers of thought that went into the design were just insane.
“Christopher was very successful at making these things look like they had been around forever, worn and tattered, by intentionally ripping things and stitching them back together crudely to reflect that the character who did the stitching didn’t have the right tools or didn’t know what he was doing,” Siekmann says. “He was in the costume room dyeing things with tea, using bleach for treatments. He experimented with different ways to make the fabric match the level of distress he wanted.”
Amazingly, he did it all on a budget of around $100, mainly using clothing from the theatre program’s existing wardrobe.
“I simply added to and subtracted from it,” Aceves says. “You can do anything you want with whatever you have. You can win an award on a shoestring as long as you know your limits and challenge yourself to go past them.”
He also says the costumes were completely clean, even though they looked “completely disgusting and messed-up.” The proof was in the performances, he says.
“As soon as I heard someone audibly gasp or saw their eyes go wide, I knew in my heart I did my job,” he says. “There’s this feeling of, ’I did this. I can’t believe I’ve done this.’ And it feels magical.”
After the play, he submitted his work to the KCACTF competition and made a presentation to judges at the regional festival. Siekmann says such competitive endeavors are vital to career development.
“Designers need to verbalize what’s in their heads, to explain to a director and production team very concisely, ’This is why I made the choices I made,’” she says. “Chris is a polished speaker and knows how to present himself well. We encourage students to go through this process because it forces them to present to people they don’t know, and that’s how you get jobs. It’s like a job interview process.”
Aceves won the regional round, advancing further than any Concordia student had in any KCACTF contest. He then made his presentation to the national judges and happened to be attending his twin sister’s graduation ceremony when KCACTF announced that he’d won.
“I was completely unprepared when I was one of the first to be announced,” he says. “It was a big shock. I was utterly happy. My parents and I were freaking out and celebrating in a crowd of silent people.”
His mother, a teacher, and his dad, who works at Union Pacific railroad, have always encouraged him to pursue art as a career. Concordia’s theatre faculty helped.
“I could not have done this without Tony Vezner, Lori Siekmann, and Andrew Sierszyn, head of the Design and Technical Production emphasis in Concordia’s theatre program,” Aceves says. “They continuously pushed me once they recognized how much I loved costume design. They were right. I was very fortunate to get to work with them, getting to see what the field is like and prepare myself for what’s to come.”
Siekmann says Concordia has launched students “who have gone on to highest level in their fields as professional artists. Chris has every opportunity to do that.”