Student Success|

School of Music, Theatre and Dance

icon of a calendarNovember 23, 2020

icon of a pencilBy Joan Carleton

Constructing a Skillset

Musical theatre student pursues his passion for design

two white arrows point down
white camera icon

Robert Hall

Matthew Carlsen’s, CAS ’20, love for costume design was evident from a young age. Sketches of dresses can be found in his childhood books. Friends’ dolls donned handmade clothes. A fifth-grade history report focused on Victorian hat stores. His younger brother became the unfortunate subject of attempts at makeup artistry.

But it wasn’t until he joined Oakland University’s musical theatre program that he realized these childhood fantasies were not only his passion, but could become his reality.

OU’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance offers study options in both front of theatre and behind the scenes. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theatre, Carlsen was able to work with faculty for flexible curriculum options that allowed him to explore these passions in costuming and theatrical design. “The faculty welcome mistakes, viewing them as growth opportunities — thus creating a supportive and friendly environment. My self-confidence has substantially risen,” says Carlsen.

Carlsen’s in-depth process might surprise you, with fine attention to detail that makes his work stand out. By thoroughly reading the script, he understands the important relationships and major themes in order to conceptualize ideas. He then researches the time period for cultural, social and economic characteristics, resulting in a mood board with thorough character definition.

Only then does Carlsen move on to the design itself, sharing approximately 15–25 rough sketches per character with the director to achieve a unified vision. Finally, he conducts fabric research, fleshes out the final designs, and launches into the construction.

Artwork of dress with fabric

Carlsen’s sketches for Seagull (2019)

Student reaching for bolt of fabric

Carlsen pulls bolts of fabric from the shelves of Varner Hall’s costume shop

Student sitting at sewing machine

Sewing machines are just one of the many of the tools available to students in Varner Hall’s costume shop

Student putting dress on dress form

Carlsen fits a dress form with one of the costumes he constructed

Close up of hands on dress embellishments

Carlsen adds embellishments to the costume

Student looking through clothing racks

Carlsen looks through the rows of past production costumes in Varner Hall’s costume shop

Student sitting on steps surrounded by costumes

Matthew Carlsen, CAS ‘20

Carlsen has designed costumes for several student-directed works and dance pieces, as well as mainstage OU productions including Urinetown (2019) and Cabaret (2020). His role as lead costumer for Blue Stockings (2019) allowed him the opportunity to oversee the build process and assist students on their individual assignments.

His favorite show to date was Chekhov’s Seagull (2019) due to the complex characters set in his favorite fashion decade of the 1890s. The pandemic has paused Carlsen’s plans due to the shutdown of the theatre industry — but he’s not letting this stop him. With visions of New York, London or Chicago, he aspires to work as an assistant designer until he applies for Master of Fine Arts costume design programs.

Long-term, Carlsen has set his sights on his own costume design firm, with a specialization in historical and period films.

Carlsen’s work can be seen at

Learn more about the School of Music, Theatre and Dance programs.


Share this story