When Jeffery Phipps, ’79, came to Berea in 1975, not only was Berea College without a theatre major, it had also just suffered the loss of the Tabernacle theatre building (“The Tab”), which burned down on Monday, September 3, 1973. At that time, Berea’s English program offered only three theatre classes, Play Production, Oral Drama, and Introduction to Technical Theatre, which were taught in a space on the second floor of Phelps Stokes Chapel known as “The Phoenix.” Despite these temporary disadvantages, Phipps was able to still graduate with an independent major in costume design, but it did require extra work and considerable initiative.
While enrolled in Introduction to Technical Theatre, Phipps’ professor Dr. John Bolin suggested that he pursue costume design as an independent major. “I had to sketch out all of the classes I’d take for the next three and a half years and explain how that could be a good academic path for me. And then I had to submit my proposal to a board. They reviewed it and interviewed me, and I was able to get it, but it was a lot of work,” said Phipps. “But it was marvelous.”
Following Berea, he continued his education at the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 1983 with a Master of Fine Arts in Costume Design. Today, Phipps is a member of United Scenic Artists, Southeastern Theatre Conference, United States Institute for Theatre Technology, and The Historic Commission in Washington, North Carolina. He is also a board member of the Turnage Theaters Foundation and performs in The Nutcracker every year as Herr Drosselmeyer.
With a career in costume design spanning decades, Phipps has designed for more than three hundred productions, including My Fair Lady, The All Night Strut!, The Boy Friend, The Drowsy Chaperone, Romeo and Juliet, The Elephant Man, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Comedy of Errors, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, West Side Story, The Rivals, and Big River.
Phipps retired this year from East Carolina University, where he taught classes in costume design, stage makeup, and play production of all skill levels. He also led a study abroad program in which students visited Bath, England, for a week and attended classes at the Fashion Museum, which Phipps said is “an incredible world-class museum with garments dating from the seventeenth century to the modern day.” As part of their study abroad experience, students traveled back to the U.S. aboard Cunard Cruise Line’s famous Queen Mary 2, attending workshops on the ship with graduate students from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Now retired, Phipps will continue teaching as an enlightenment lecturer on Cunard ships. When he’s not making the transatlantic crossing between New York City and Southampton, he will also continue his design work, but on his own terms. “The lovely thing about being retired is I can now pick and choose what I want to design,” Phipps explained.
This fall, he is designing for two operas, and he will likely work on other productions as well, building on his prolific career in costume design that began more than thirty-five years ago at Berea College.