If you are acting onstage in community theater, and the crotch of your pants suddenly rips, you thank your lucky stars that a costume designer is sitting nearby with a needle and thread in hand. You manage to finish the scene without turning the tear into a conspicuous hole, and then make a beeline backstage where said-designer sews up the problem while you’re still wearing the pants, just in time to send you back on stage.
For the last 15 years, local costume designer and artist Diana Tunis has dreamed up the costumes and set designs for the summer youth musical theater program, a local production. This past summer, she, along with the program’s director Suzanne Lederman and musical coordinator Carol Rios, a few helping hands and a lot of kids, brought “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” to life onstage.
Each year Tunis, Lederman and Rios select a play. At the beginning of the summer, tryouts are held, and 40-plus youth actors are chosen. From that point onward, Tunis has two and a half weeks to complete as many as 150 costumes (many of the actors are double or triple-casted) in time for the production to go live.
How does she do it?
Months before, she reads the script and listens to the musical score. She might buy the illustrated books. She will draw out the sets. Then the ideas just start flowing. Sometimes she just works with what she finds, like a set of cheap bowls. Other times her muse is nothing more than a gallon of pink paint.
However, it is fair to say that some of Tunis’ best work takes form within days of showtime, triggered by ideas that come to her just before falling asleep. Even with five to six helpers, this means she is usually painting or sewing into the early hours of the morning the day of the show. Sebastian the crab just barely came together in time for this summer’s performance.
Above all, the most important part of the creative process for Tunis is that she work with as few guidelines and as little instruction as possible. As long as she can literally allow her imagination to “run wild,” in an organic, evolving manner, everything comes together beautifully.
In other words, rather than expect something recreated from a book, “you’ll get something better if you don’t micromanage me,” she says bluntly.
This creative process has always come naturally to Tunis. It is easy when you grow up in a family of artists. Almost everyone in her family, from her grandparents, to her siblings and kids, is or was an artist of some sort.
“Everybody [in my family] has it,” she says. “It’s kind of a cultural thing.”
She learned from an early age, starting with what she calls the “Death Valley days,” where she accompanied her mother to Death Valley and other sites for various artists’ gatherings. By age 9 she was making her own clothes.
Tunis later designed costumes for Lynn’s School of Dance. Then, in 1998, she was asked to design the costumes and set for the first summer youth musical.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she remembers.
But, with each year she learned. She continues to gain invaluable insight along the way. For instance, don’t use Velcros on costumes-they blow right off.
And, once her kids grew up, she went back to school and got an AA degree in fine arts, and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
Think of just about any children’s story you ever wanted brought to life, and there is a good chance Tunis recreated it. That includes “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Pied Piper,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” “The Hobbit” and “Alice in Wonderland”.
By the early 2000s, the Copper Cities Community Players began asking Tunis to contribute her creative abilities to their productions, too, starting with “Arsenic and Old Lace.” If you watched the Players’ rendition of “Is He Dead?” last fall, you should know that those magnificent poof-y costumes were all thanks to the genius of Tunis.
Those, along with hers and other local creations, were on display this summer in an exhibition called “The Art of the Costume” at Globe’s Center for the Arts. You might have also seen her paintings on display at Vida E Caffe earlier this year.
In November, Tunis is planning another exhibition at the Center for the Arts. And, at the time she was interviewed, she was preparing to open a new all-ages art school in downtown Globe called the Blue Hands Art Academy.
It seems there is no end in sight for Tunis. We can only hope. Globe-Miami wouldn’t be the same without a touch of magic.
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.