Members of the School of Creative and Performing Arts are calling Jennifer Arsenault’s designs amazing.
“We were lucky to get her,” says Dawn McCaugherty, director of the upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. “She could have gone to any number of schools to do her degree.”
Arsenault is a grad student at the University of Calgary who is doing her thesis project on the stage designs of Measure for Measure. She has been working with McCaugherty and the set and costume design teams in the School of Creative and Performing Arts to produce a futuristic noir-style design for the play.
The tables in her office in Craigie Hall are littered with drawings. There is a small model of the Measure for Measure stage design, which resembles the carbon-freezing chamber in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a design that Arsenault has been working on for months and, along with the costumes, has been inspired by everything from Blade Runner, Kill Bill and the fashion of Vogue Magazine and haute couture.
“I found it easier to have the set figured out before the costumes,” Arsenault says. “It is easier to create the world they live in and then see how they look in that world. It’s just the way my mind works.”
She began working on her designs last April, brainstorming with McCaugherty and planning the 33 different costumes for the production.
When asked about working with Arsenault, McCaugherty pointed out that she’s an incredibly hard working and thorough researcher.
“[She] goes that extra mile in terms of everything that she does,” McCaugherty says. “She’s this wonderful combination of challenging to work with, because she sets the bar so high, and also really easy to work with, because she is a person who is open to all kinds of ideas.”
Arsenault attributes the time spent on the designs simply to the demands of her thesis project.
For the production, Arsenault researched the original productions of Measure for Measureto try and break down how the characters interacted because of the rigid class structures involved at the time. The position of different classes has a significant role in the production’s designs with different characters wearing distinct costume designs, colours and fabrics to distinguish them at a glance from characters of a lower social rank, but all are adapted for a futuristic concept of the story.
Arsenault loves what she does. But there was a time when she never thought that she would dedicate herself to design.
Arsenault grew up in the Magdalen Islands, between Gaspé Peninsula and Prince Edward Island. She began drawing at an early age.
“I just remember that I really liked it,” Arsenault says. “When we were in school and it was art class, I was the happiest girl ever.”
But because of where she grew up, she says there weren’t any art teachers around after her second year of high school. She says she forgot that she liked drawing and ended up moving to Montreal to pursue pure science in CEGEP — the post-secondary institutions in Quebec in between high school and university. She was 16 at the time and living on her own while attending school and studying science. She says it was just too much. Recalling her love of drawing she visited the college’s art department and enrolled the next fall.
“I had this weird moment where I totally forgot about art and how much I liked it,” Arsenault says. “And as soon as that came back I never stopped.”
In between studying visual arts and participating in the drama club, Arsenault talked with the set and costume designer. She wasn’t sure what to study in university.
“She was explaining to me what she was doing and I was like, that’s the perfect mix between visual arts and theatre,” Arsenault says.
She loved the idea of watching her sketches come alive on stage and decided to audition for theatre schools in Montreal.
After graduating from the University of Quebec with a degree in drama and stage design, Arsenault decided to travel. She says she wanted to work in as many places as she could and learn as many different ways of working as she could.
After graduating with her undergrad in 2010, she came to Alberta to study costume design at the Banff Centre where she worked as an assistant costume designer with Jorge Sandoval. She followed that up with a three-month internship in Belgium working for a theatre company that worked with puppets. She ended up designing sets for a collection of 600 puppets.
“It was a lot of fun researching all those puppets because they were from all over the world,” Arsenault says. “We had some African ones, some water puppets from Vietnam that I didn’t even know existed, but they are so cool.”
She travelled to Southeast Asia to look for more of the puppets, then returned to work in Belgium for two months and then came back to Montreal designing costumes for giant Christmas decorations for malls.
“I had to stitch together huge coats for eight-feet tall polar bears,” she says.
Finally she met University of Calgary professor April Viczko at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space who recruited her to do her master’s at the U of C.
She has no doubts about what she wants to do with her life, but she does admit she’s concerned about the possibility of working after her master’s.
“I’ve had all these experiences, but I was also stuck on unemployment insurance for a while in Montreal because I couldn’t find anything,” Arsenault says. “It’s not a field where we have that job security.”
“I know as soon as I graduate that panic is going to come back,” she says.
But McCaugherty disagrees.
“She’s a real talent,” McCaugherty says, “and I think she is someone that we’re going to see a lot of in the theatre community in the future.”
The School of Creative and Performing Arts production of Measure for Measure is playing Feb. 18 to March 1 in the University Theatre.