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Heather Milam uses research from her studies in Moscow to shape costume technology program at IU

Oct. 19, 2016

This school year marks a special milestone for IU professor of practice Heather Milam.

Heather Milam

Heather Milam | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE IU DEPARTMENT OF THEATRE, DRAMA AND CONTEMPORARY DANCE

Milam, who came to IU three years ago to start the costume technology master's program in the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance, will see her first class of students graduate.

"We start the job search soon, and I am excited for them," she said. "I feel that I put together a good program, and I am expecting a high success rate in them being employable. They all produce great work and have learned a lot."

To create such a program from scratch, Milam did a lot of research and examination of similar programs around the country. She looked at the top programs that were graduating highly skilled students into an area in the industry that Milam herself saw was lacking talent and skills necessary to meet the demand. From examining those schools and their programs, she was able to craft IU’s costume technology program to be specific and focused.

Over the summer, Milam took her research to an international level, spending a month at the Moscow Arts Theatre School studying their education model.

Milam received a grant from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, as well as a New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities travel grant through IU, to travel to Moscow alongside Wayne State University students and faculty, who make the trip every summer. While there, Milam studied the Moscow Arts Theatre School’s training curriculum, noting the differences and similarities between their teaching methods and ours in the United States and at IU specifically. Milam sat through lectures, often participating in the same activities the students were, to get the full experience and absorb the teaching methods from a student’s perspective.

Students study abroad in Moscow

Heather Milam, top center, and students from Wayne State University study abroad in Moscow, Russia. | PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHER MILAM

Through her study of the programs at the Moscow Arts Theatre School, Milam found value in providing students with a mentor who would follow them throughout their time in the program, ultimately using their industry connections to help the students secure positions upon graduation.

Milam also noticed that art is viewed more broadly in Russia. They treat all of their students as artists, even if the work they are doing is more technical, as it is with costume technology, Milam said. This thought process, she said, makes for the production of more beautiful technical work.

She had the opportunity to sit through the students' "final exams," which are really just exhibitions where they showcase their work.

"The pride they take in showing the process of their art is incredible," Milam said. "Here in the United States, we show more research, but they really focus on the students’ interpretation and translation of that research."

While Milam was able to glean a lot from their program structures in Moscow, she was also able to teach them some things about how programs are traditionally structured in the United States. She even sparked the interest of a Russian student when speaking about how IU students have the opportunity to work on productions throughout their entire graduate career, which is something Russian students only get to do in their final year.

Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow

The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia. | PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHER MILAM

"After I spoke one evening, this girl followed me out the door and down the street. She stopped me to say, ‘I’d really like to learn by doing.’ She expressed interest in coming to IU to see what that would be like," Milam said.   

Professors are always researching in their area of expertise, and traveling to Moscow was Milam's way of doing first-hand research rather than reading from a book. Now that Milam is back in Bloomington and deep into the semester, she is constantly drawing on her experience in Moscow to shape her teaching methods.

"I only have four graduate students in my program, so I am always trying to figure out what works in this small, intimate environment," Milam said. "It’s a program that is meant to be very specific to what their needs are and where they want to go. So I am constantly adjusting and learning along with them."

Heather Milam's establishment of the costume technology program aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success.

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