“The Taming of the Shrew” is one of the many plays by Shakespeare that have been portrayed in countless ways, and Janet Swenson thought she had seen them all. However, when a director tells her it will be set in 1888 Loretto, Kan., Swenson scratches her head in confusion. What did he see in this play to give it this setting? But Swenson is up for the challenge. She loves the idea of designing something new for the characters.
For more than 40 years, Swenson has spent her life making characters come alive. She has designed costumes or done makeup for more than 250 productions, including Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival, the Hill Cumorah Pageant and the Church’s Light of the World production during the 2002 Olympics. Now in her last year as a full-time BYU professor and mentor in the Theatre and Media Arts Department, Swenson hopes to be remembered as someone who was good at her job and an inspiration to her students.
“Whenever you have a problem, you go to Janet,” said Mallory Mackay, Swenson’s TA and a senior majoring in theater. “It’ll be weird not having her around. She really encourages your creative process.”
An energetic and quirky personality, Swenson did not initially know she was destined for a life in the theater. She volunteered to help with props and sewing for her theater program at her high school in Seattle, but was too shy to audition and go on stage. At BYU, she started out as a history education major, but that changed when her bishop heard her sing in ward choir. He asked her to join the roadshow, and from there her love of theater began.
“I found that it wasn’t too bad – I got applause, everyone was going crazy, and I got to kiss a cute boy,” Swenson said. “I thought I was queen of the world.”
Her bishop’s wife helped with the costumes in the roadshow and showed her how fun it was to dress people up. Swenson also volunteered in the costume shop at the USO tour. This led her to audition for the tour and receive a part. Harold I. Hansen, who directed the Hill Cumorah Pageant for 40 years, saw her in the tour and ended up being her mentor and helped her secure more productions.
“Because I volunteered in the costume shop, I ended up being in charge of costumes because I was the only one who knew how to sew,” Swenson said. “After that, I never really left the costume shop. I loved it.”
Swenson worked on 4-6 productions a year as a student and faculty member at BYU. She also worked at the Sundance Festival and the Utah Shakespearean Festival for 20 years. She was able to meet people at various shows who took her on the next step of her journey, where she also did costumes and makeup at theater festivals in Wisconsin, Idaho, Wyoming and California.
Working with so many directors and productions has led to a long list of humorous and interesting stories, which she tells her students on a regular basis. One memorable moment occurred at Sundance, during the closing night of the last show to be played on the old stage before it was rebuilt. They were performing “Into the Woods,” and Swenson had designed all the costumes for the show, a fact she remains proud of.
“They were ripping apart our stage that was our home all that time,” Swenson said. “We were thinking of all those people that have trod those boards, of the spirits of the people who had been there before. As we were looking out beyond the audience, a full moon came up over behind the hill and three deer came down and stood in the middle of the moon watching us sing. Just doing what you love to do the most in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it was absolutely fabulous.”
Inspiration comes to Swenson from many areas. One thing she likes to do is browse through magazines and find photos that stick out to her. In one production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Swenson found a picture of a forest floor where the multi-colored leaves had fallen and were covered in frost. She used that photo as inspiration for one character’s cape, so that it was a piece of costume that also looked like part of the stage. Part of the fun of theater, she said, is finding new ways to recreate well-known characters.
“I’ve designed ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ 12 times and it’s never been the same,” Swenson said. “For instance, you think you’re doing a regular production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ and then the director tells you that it’s going to be set in 1888, Loretto, Kansas, and you’re trying to figure out what made him think ‘yee-haw.’ It’s really fun because the directors’ minds can take you anywhere and you have to figure out how to help them tell their story.”
Swenson’s career did not extend to just theater. She also had the opportunity to work at Osmond Studios for the original “Donny and Marie Show,” where she did the makeup for guest stars such as Olivia Newton John, Bob Hope and Betty White.
Despite these major accomplishments, Swenson said her favorite part of her career has been her tenure as a professor. On a regular day she can be found in the makeup studio or costume shop in the basement of the Harris Fine Arts Center, teaching or supervising each of the theater design students she mentors.
“I love teaching and being around those kids and watching them catch fire and fall in love with the things that I fell in love with about theater,” Swenson said. “If you love something and love them and are able to communicate that love, then I think that’s what does it.”
Her students would agree her love for the theater is contagious. Shelby Luke, a recent Theatre and Media Arts graduate who has worked closely with Swenson, said what she loves about Swenson is the enthusiasm and passion she extends to her students.
“She loves the theater and her passion is infectious,” Luke said. “She’s very enthusiastic and willing to help you with whatever you need.”
Swenson is currently working on “White Christmas,” and it will be one of her last productions as a full-time professor. She will retire in August, even though the department has yet to find a replacement for her. She said she’s sad to be leaving, as she believes she’s had the career of a lifetime.
“A lot of people think you play for a living,” Swenson said. “And you sort of do. But it’s a hard kind of play. A lot of work goes into what we do. And most of the time if you do it well enough, it looks easy. There doesn’t seem to be effort involved if you do it right.”