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Costume designer Patricia Dennis is hanging it up after 40 years in UMD's theater department

Patricia Dennis works on a costume for "Sister Act" at the University of Minnesota Duluth costume shop. David Ballard Photography

Patricia Dennis won't admit to favorite costumes, shows, or actors she has worked with in the past 40 years with the University of Minnesota Duluth's theater department. But occasionally she will give a little extra something to a certain memory.

In 2001, professor Tom Isbell directed a production of "As I Lay Dying," based on William Faulkner's tale of a poor, poor family whose matriarch has a dying wish to be buried in her hometown. Her people travel for days and through the muck to make it happen.

"I remember telling Tom, 'I want them so dirty, when the audience sees them they can smell the body odor,'" she said during a recent walk through "Designs, Drawings and Doodles," a collection of renderings from her career. Dennis' art is currently on display at the Marshall Performing Arts Center on UMD's campus and includes pieces ranging from Rosalind's thin layers, sequins and beads from the operetta "Die Fledermaus" to feather swatches from "The Birds." And this is just a small fraction of her creations.

"It's a bit overwhelming when I look at all of it," said Dennis, who retires from the university in mid-May. "For me, it brings back wonderful memories."

Patricia Dennis (David Ballard Photography)A walk through the work

This kind of behind-the-scenes viewing of the art of design, a gallery show, is a rarity, Dennis said.

"For designers, the design is not really there until it's on stage," she said. "There is the art of it."

Still, here it is. Dennis' framed work is hanging on the walls and is draped on mannequins in the lobby of the performing arts center and will be available for viewing through May 3.

The exhibition includes three pieces from a production of the comedy "Greater Tuna": a deputy, a rain-coated character, a slouched man in a bolo tie. There is the tuxedo'ed emcee from "Cabaret."

Dennis passed the renderings from "Die Fledermaus" when her colleague Alice Pierce, a voice instructor and opera director, walked into the performing arts center. "Alice, remember this?" she asked.

There are pieces drawn, purposefully, on newsprint. An image from "The Invalid" reminded her that the role had been played by Joel McKinnon Miller, now firmly planted in Hollywood.

In the photo, the man has a cocked hip and a cane. The robe is still in the university's costume collection.

Dennis is usually thinking months ahead. She likes to let ideas percolate, she said. Dennis studies plays, examines the lyrics from musicals, investigates the period.

She works closely with the director and takes into consideration the specific actor's movements.

"I think there are two goals," she said. "To support the characters and support the play itself — the emotional and psychological content."

Back in the day

Dennis was 25 when she was hired to design costumes for three summer productions. She took the position with the caveat that she needed to have the flexibility to travel to job interviews. UMD was also hiring at the time. She applied for and was offered the job.

"I turned down a Big 10 school to stay here," she said. "Duluth as a place was so incredible to me. That lake ... I decided to stay. Now, if someone had told me I'd still be here ... "

Mark Harvey, department head, came along soon after and calls that period "the golden era."

There was a constant stream of productions and intensive summer work that featured UMD students and visiting artists.

"Back in those days, the faculty were all young, and most of us were single," he said. "We hung out together a lot. We'd have faculty pajama parties.

"We don't do that anymore."

Dennis was department head for about 15 years, Harvey said, and now knows the scene from stem to stern.

Isbell described her as the heart and soul of the program.

"I feel like she inspired me and made me ask the right questions of the play," he said. "I felt like I was a better director because of what she was asking."

'They keep me young'

The last show of Dennis' career is "Sister Act," which opens today at UMD, but she has been in and advisory role for another designer. Anna Jorgenson, a senior, is lead on this one.

A sampling of costume designs from various productions at UMD were designed by Patricia Dennis. David Ballard PhotographyThis is fitting. For Dennis, it's the students who have kept her career fresh.

"It's all about them," Dennis said. "They keep you energized. I always say they keep me young."

One of her former students is McKinnon Miller, a UMD graduate who is on NBC's popular cop comedy "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." He recently credited Dennis with everything he knows about costume makeup. Told this, she laughed. She recalled Miller proudly telling her about how he had cut off the nipple from a baby bottle and stuck it up his nostril to create a disjointed-looking nose for the 1994 movie "Wagons East."

Sasha Howell, costume designer at the College of St. Scholastica, was also Dennis' student. Since graduating in 2010, she said Dennis has become a friend who came to her baby shower and a resource — from borrowing actual costumes to advising where to buy things.

"I feel like she's a fountain of knowledge," Howell said.

Come June

Dennis said she would like to keep up with drawing, maybe set up her easel and take some classes. But she would also like to experience Duluth as a person with time. Her dream design job, she said, would be for the play she thinks everyone should read, "Cyrano de Bergerac."

"As long as they have a good budget," she said. "I'm not doing that on a song and a prayer."

Dennis said she doesn't know what she will do with all of this art hanging at UMD. Maybe friends will take some, she said, or maybe they'll end up in a bonfire.

"One thing about seeing this," Dennis said of her art. "It's like, whoa. So many years, so many memories.

"The future is ahead."

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