By Teresa Blackman
Susan Cox, the University of Dallas’ own costume designer, has met Kevin Bacon, created Muppets and run a theater company alongside the designer of Barney’s costume — to name a fraction of her accomplishments. This spring she will add a second Dallas Opera commission to the list. Cox will design costumes for the Tchaikovsky opera “Iolanta.” It will be her second collaboration with German director Christian Rath.
The show’s title character is a blind princess who remains in her garden, ignorant of her royalty and blindness. Though typically staged in a medieval, fairytale world, Rath and Cox set this production around the turn of the 20th century, a time when Freudian and Jungian theories were becoming prevalent. These psychological theories will be manifest in the costumes, as each character will have a parallel character, one dark, one light. The designs focus on specifically male and female silhouettes, colored only black and white.
Dallas Year has 100 free tickets to a dress rehearsal of “Iolanta” on Wed., April 8. It will be a chance for many UD students to see the work of a prominent member of the drama community both on campus and off.
Before coming to UD, Cox had built a diverse resume. She graduated from Trinity University, where she worked in the costume shop, with hopes of becoming an actress.
Her first job was at a social service agency in Cleveland doing street theater with delinquent young people from the ages of 9 to 19. All of them had drug or alcohol addictions and most already had a record.
“I learned a lot,” Cox said. “I was not the most successful, I wasn’t Sidney Poitier, if you’ve ever seen ‘To Sir, With Love.’ That’s what I thought it was going to be like. I was very naïve.”
Cox moved to Dallas for graduate school at Southern Methodist University, and later began to work with the costume designer Irene Corey, who Cox cites as one of the most important mentors in her life and the one Cox says changed her perspective. Corey, who died two years ago, was a costume design icon whose works include the costumes of Barney and Baby Bop. Together with Corey and Corey’s husband, Cox started a small company called Expectations to create commercials, props and costumes.
After learning from Corey and then attending graduate school, Cox moved to that epicenter of the theater world: New York.
“When I got to the city, I had a pretty experienced pair of hands,” Cox said. Her skilled hands and a lucky set of introductions earned her a place in New York’s vibrant theater community, even working with Muppets.
“I got a phone call from [Muppets creator Jim] Henson saying did I want to come work on this short project,” Cox recounted. “And it was so cool to get a call from Muppets!”
After the short project, she was invited back and worked for Henson for many years both in New York and Los Angeles. Visitors to her office can see a Muppet, a unique souvenir from her experience.
A few relocations later, Cox landed at the University of Dallas and has been here for 10 years.
“We are so lucky to have her…our little UD has a world-famous costume designer,” assistant professor of drama Stefan Novinski said. “She’s the really rare combination of incredible design instincts and inventive imagination with an attention to detail and professionalism that is very rare.”
Novinski is by no means alone in his praise.
“Susie is like all theater artists, real theater artists, imminently and endlessly curious about the world, about the way things are working in the world, and the way in which we can manifest that curiosity,” drama department chair Kyle Lemieux said. “For her that takes real, beautiful life. You only need to see one main stage to see the remarkable level of professionalism that she puts on stage.”
“UD for me has been the perfect fit and [it is] because of the students who are here. It’s just remarkable to work with people of your caliber,” Cox said. “I feel so fortunate to have first of all been considered for this job. I’ve learned so much from you all and it’s because of the students that I love it so much. I have great colleagues here too, for sure that’s true, but it’s you guys.You are so remarkably different from people your age around. You’re concerned, you’re active, for the most part, extremely bright, driven. It’s a privilege.”
It seems the privilege is reciprocal.
“How lucky we are to have her in the department. And how lucky the theater community in Dallas is that she is here,” Novinski said. “I’m sure the Dallas Opera is thrilled to have a designer of her caliber that’s local. She’s a national designer.”
Cox’s renown comes not only from the quality and diversity of her work, but also from her generous amiability.
“There’s no one she doesn’t know. And she’s famous for her good cheer, for hosting people at her house from out of town,” Novinski said. “Her list of friends is miles long. Everyone loves Susie Cox.”