Theatrical Threads

MFA student Miwa Ishii’s knowledge of bustiers, bustles, and everything between led to stunning costume designs for UT’s production of Sweeney Todd.

Miwa Ishii

“We have some shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top,” sings Mrs. Lovett. She and Sweeney Todd have just hatched their sinister plan for money and revenge through a bloodthirsty recipe.

The main ingredients, of course, are “a little priest” here, a “Royal Marine” there, and other savory (and not-so-savory) men around London.

When we next see the two antiheroes, they’ve sold enough of their “meat pies” to go from wearing the tattered, soiled clothes of peasants to sumptuous, colorful Victorian fashions. And we see Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd stand out brilliantly from their fellow Londoners.

Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd’s transformation from rags to riches in this case is all thanks to Miwa Ishii, a graduate student pursuing an MFA in theater with a concentration in costume design. Her designs captured the essence of the characters portrayed in the Clarence Brown Theatre’s 2012 production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Jeff Austin and UT alumna Dale Dickey.


Ishii Sketches

Ishii's sketches for Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett's Act 2 costumes in the Clarence Brown Theatre's production of "Sweeney Todd."


A native of Japan, Ishii is a member of a small, elite group to pursue and earn MFAs in theater at UT. Among more than 1,100 applicants, only fourteen students are accepted to the program during each two-year cycle, with concentrations in acting, lighting design, scenic design, and costume design. For three years, students train in the classroom, the studio, and professionally at the Clarence Brown Theatre. Ishii’s Sweeney Todd designs were part of her thesis project and will lead to her graduation this May.

“I was always interested in art and studied a little fashion design and tailoring in high school,” says Ishii.

However, she wasn’t sure what career she wanted to pursue. Instead of staying in Japan—where she would have to declare her major when applying for the college entrance exam—Ishii decided to come to the United States, where she could explore different interests before deciding on her major.

She first earned an AA at Coffeyville Community College and a BA in technical theater at Southwestern College, both in Kansas. She interned at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, and then came to UT. This year, Ishii is the first UT student to be accepted to both the Young Designers’ Forum and the Young Technicians’ Forum of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

With graduation drawing near, Ishii is focused primarily on the search for her next project, whether it be for stage, film, or television.

“I do hope that I will get to work on a piece that relates to a modern audience,” Ishii says. “After all, the reason I create costumes is not because I adore pretty garments (though I definitely do), but because I aspire to tell a story that can touch, move, and affect people. Costumery is one of the tools that help create
this communication.”

Roger Hagy, Jr.