Costume drawings for "Little Women" production
UCI's undergraduate showcase production of "Little Women" features costumes by grad student Caitlin Cisek. Portraying the March sisters are, from left, Amy Perkins (Beth), Deidre Haren (Jo), Melissa Dunham (Amy) and Annie Nelson (Meg). Paul R. Kennedy

Caitlin Cisek studies people – how they walk, what they wear, how they speak. She intended to put these observations to use in an acting career, until she performed in her first college production.

“I worked myself to the bone, and didn’t do as well as I wanted. I didn’t have the capacity to do better,” says the UC Irvine grad student. “But I loved theater – both my parents had been in the theater – and I didn’t want to give up my dream.”

So Cisek, who had learned to sew as a child, took a slight detour to the costume shop.

“Amazingly,” she says, “I found a new love that combined a childhood hobby and everything I’ve learned – and I didn’t have to be in the spotlight. I thought: ‘This is it. I’m home.’”

On Friday, May 29, when the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ drama department raises the curtain on Little Women: The Broadway Musical, the actors will be wearing Caitlin Cisek originals.

Working with UCI costume design professors Holly Poe Durbin and Shigeru Yaji, her mentors, Cisek has spent seven months immersed in the March family’s world. She read Louisa May Alcott’s book, published in 1868 and 1869; watched old versions of the movie; scrutinized clothing in the PBS series “The Civil War”; and attended Civil War reenactments. Then she started sketching.

“My mentors reviewed my drawings, encouraged me, questioned me, helped me articulate my message and made sure that message came out visually in my designs,” Cisek says.

Producing color sketches of the garments, complete with construction details, was the last step before the costume shop began the building process – where design aesthetics meet reality.

“I may have envisioned a dress with 14 buttons, but only seven would fit,” Cisek says. “Or the crinolines and hoops women wore under their skirts during that period restricted the actresses. So I watch, listen to and learn from mentors and peers. It’s very much a collaborative process.”

Costume design may not have been her original focus, she says, but “a window opened, and I grabbed the opportunity. I’m looking forward to more windows and parlaying my skills. It’s important for me to stay in theater and, simply, to create things.”

Little Women: The Broadway Musical runs May 29 and 30 and June 3-6 at 8 p.m. in the Claire Trevor Theatre; Saturday matinees are May 30 at 2 p.m. and June 6 at 1 p.m. Tickets ($18 general audiences; $16 seniors, UCI staff and faculty; and $9 UCI students and children) can be purchased through the Arts Box Office at 949-824-2787 or