Walking into Robert E. Johnson Theatre there are rows of seats and a wide open stage. Walking on to the stage, nobody would ever guess what happens behind the scenes of the shows. Tucked in a corner underneath the main stage is the costume shoppe where every single stitch on every single costume is sewn with passion.
Below the stage, one will find assistant professor and costume designer for the theater department, Heidi Ortega, hard at work demonstrating to her student workers what needs to be done for their next production.
This is Ortega’s fifth year at Murray State, where she not only helps design the costumes for the theatrical productions, but also teaches classes for students who want to learn how to do theatrical makeup and make costumes.
While working here Ortega has taught students how to do stage makeup techniques such as aging themselves and transform themselves into animals.
She credits her mother for her love of sewing and designing. Before becoming a professor at Murray State, Ortega had many experiences within the field.
“I started sewing as soon as I could reach the pedal with my mom,” she said. “As a teenage girl, I was really big into fashion and I thought I was going to be a fashion designer, but I didn’t like that there’s a lot of the competitiveness and the cut throat attitudes in the industry.”
Ortega said she became interested in fashion in high school where she would organize fashion shows.
“My mom sews, so that’s how I learned to sew,” she said. “But as far as designing costumes, I’ve been designing since 1993. I’ve been involved in costuming since the late ’80s.”
Ortega received her undergraduate degree from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she was originally studying elementary education with a minor in theater.
She said her theater department was great because it was so small it gave her a great opportunity to really discover herself and the craft she loved so much.
“When I talked to the department chair to be a theater minor I told them I could sew. They gave me a work study job at the costume shop where I designed all the costumes for my undergrad show for all the four years I was there.”
Now, Ortega has both work-study and student worker most are usually majors or minors, she said.
“It really just depends on their interests,” Ortega said. “I’m far more interested in whether or not they want to be here, because then they want to learn things, and it usually works out really well.”
While Ortega was studying education, she spent a year teaching abroad in Beijing, China.
“I taught at the International School of Beijing as a kindergarten teacher in 1993, which was just after my freshman year of college. The school was preschool through seniors in high school and it served all children of the embassy.”
She always loved the international school system and thought she would one day return, but her love for theater grew the more she practiced it, Ortega said.
While in Beijing she worked for Peking Players in China, which is what she considers her first professional job. Since then, she has designed pageant dresses for the Junior Miss America pageant, worked for various dance companies and has worked at the Egyptian Theater Company in Salt Lake City.
“Just like most of the professors around here, that is what we are supposed to be doing – writing, researching – and so in the theater, we’re supposed to be doing shows,” Ortega said. “So, I consider that part of my job, but it obviously makes me a much better teacher to do so.”
Even though she changed her mind about teaching abroad, Ortega always knew she wanted to remain a teacher, even if the age of her students would change.
“I’m a teacher because I want to just learn,” she said. “I’m a teacher because I didn’t want to stop going to school. If I could, I would just be a student for the rest of my life, and this is the best way to make that happen.”
Aside from Westminster College, Ortega attended Humboldt State to her Master of Arts, and then she attended Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, Va., to get her Master of Fine Arts.
“As a college student, you’re figuring out what you want to do,” she said. “That’s what I went through, which is why I love to be where I am. I really feel like I am you guys and I made it. It’s like, I had a dream, I followed my dream and I managed to get a job doing it, which I know is rare.”
As a teacher, Ortega loves the fact she is just like her students and she can teach them things they may not already know.
“(Our theater department) is big enough that we do really cool things but we’re small enough that when I have a student who wants to design a show, I can give them that opportunity,” she said. “I am able to help people find what it is that they want to do and give them opportunities to do it.”
Since arriving at Murray State, she has put on more than 30 shows and 20 shows outside of the theater department, averaging 10 costumes a show.
“I liked Murray because of its personal attention,” she said. “We’re a big school, but we’re not giant. It feels good here. I like the people I work with. I wanted to have a place where I could settle down and I could raise my kids, and this had all of those things.”
But the benefits for Ortega do not stop there. She loves the daily interaction she receives from her students.
“Maybe I can be that person that pushes them to leave here, find out things, learn things,” she said. “To truly be the people that I think we’re supposed to be, I believe you need to spread your wings.”
With all of her design experience, Ortega has only ever thought about opening her own shop.
“I have considered in my mind, at various times, having specialty wedding or prom dresses,” she said. “I’m six feet tall, so it’s hard to find those specialty things that look good on you and fit you right. I’ve often thought that that would be something I would enjoy doing if I had any time on the side.”
Designing is something she loves to do, but it is not her first love and never will be. Making a difference in a student’s life is far more important to her.
“While I love designing, I love teaching more,” Ortega said. “That’s why I think I never tried to go to New York and win a Tony or an Emmy, because that’s not what I wanted to do. I love to design costumes; I love it. But if I had to pick, I would pick teaching. It’s the interaction with students that is far more gratifying to me than the designing part. I always wanted to be a teacher from the beginning; that hasn’t changed.”
Faces & Places is a weekly series that profiles the people and places of Murray. Every person and every place has a story. Let us tell it.
Story by Savannah Sawyer, Assistant Features Editor.