Paul Tazewell’s love for theater and costume design all started when he was immersed in Buchtel High School’s performing arts program in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Anything about theater I was gaga over, so my life was very full and full of theater,’’ the Akron native, 53, told a master class of 33 students and faculty members at Kent State University Monday afternoon.

“I wanted to be a dancer and a performer. I was hoping to be the next Ben Vereen,” said Tazewell, dressed in an Asian-inspired Dolce & Gabbana shirt with striped pants and snazzy silver tennis shoes.

The 1982 Buchtel graduate, whose illustrious 27-year costume design career includes a 2016 Tony Award for Hamilton and an Emmy the same year for The Wiz Live!, spoke to undergraduate and graduate costume design students Monday preceding his public talk about his career that evening at KSU.

Tazewell, who no longer has immediate family in Akron, said he learned to draw and sew at an early age. Those skills, combined with his theater experience at Buchtel and in the Akron Public Schools’ citywide summer musicals, led him to begin studies as a fashion design major at Pratt Institute, with dreams of also breaking into performing in New York.

After one year at Pratt, Tazewell followed his heart back to theater costume design at North Carolina School of the Arts.

“It was too much culture shock for me to come from Akron” to New York, said Tazewell, who now lives with his husband Michael McAleer outside the city in Westchester County.

The designer, whose first internship was at the University of Akron costume shop while he was in high school, said students seeking to enter the business are stepping onto a fast-moving train: “It is about being ready when the offer comes. When the door opens, you’re ready to walk through it and you have the capacity to do what needs to be done.”

Studying at North Carolina gave Tazewell a technical design base that he has applied to theater, opera, ballet, film and TV. But he really began maturing as a designer in graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

After finishing graduate school in 1989, he designed the show Stand Up Tragedy for the Arena Stage in Washington under the direction of Max Mayer. The story about a Puerto Rican teen from a broken family required him to understand the clothing and culture of hip-hop and rap.

Changing times

Tazewell, who had been trained in classical costume design, rose to the challenge, drawn by the opportunity to tell stories about people of color in the theater.

“As I was riding this wave into the theater community, the way that theater was being produced started to shift and change,’’ Tazewell. “The interest was to pull more people of color into those theaters … and make us part of the creative process.”

His first Broadway show was the 1996 Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk with director George C. Wolfe, which debuted in 1995 at the Public Theater. The musical told the African-American story from the Middle Passage through slavery to contemporary life in a new way — through tap and poetry.

Tazewell received a Tony nomination for that show, and went on to design for Wolfe again on Caroline, or Change, a poignant story about a black maid.

Telling story

Here’s his definition of costume design that he shared with the KSU class: “It’s taking a text, or some idea of a show, and collaborating with others to figure out, ‘How do you realize visually what will help support the telling of the story?’ For me, it’s focusing on the characters and the telling of their story.”

Much of Tazewell’s work has come from developing relationships with collaborators and following their careers. That’s what happened when he pursued work with Tommy Kail, director of In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That show about Latino residents of Washington Heights was a breakout hit for both Miranda and Kail.

Six collaborations later, Tazewell was working with Kail on the smash hit Hamilton.

His work on Miranda’s groundbreaking musical has included costume designs for Hamilton on Broadway and in Chicago, for the San Francisco-Los Angeles company that will go on tour, and the London production, which he is in fittings for now.

He told students Monday that the costumes themselves don’t change between casts, but the sizes of the actors do. And each swing must have a full set of costumes for each role he or she covers.

The creative team of Hamilton had all worked together on In the Heights, so a shorthand already existed among them. Even so, “it was frightening to figure out ‘how do we best serve this up?’ I just felt like it was larger than me and I always wanted to make the best decision on how we were going to do it,” Tazewell said of the Hamilton phenomenon.

The designer said tech week is always the hardest part of the process: “That is like you’re out there naked.”

Detailed sketches

During Monday’s master class, the designer passed around beautiful costume renderings — pencil sketches painted with watercolor — of his work for shows including Porgy and Bess and Side Show. He stressed that he strives to convey the emotion of a character and scene in each of his sketches.

For Hamilton, Tazewell’s renderings weren’t as elaborate: He created mostly line drawings. And these days, he’s so busy with numerous projects, he often uses a sketch artist.

Ultimately, the story’s emotion is always at the forefront. Working with his fourth Hamilton company, as Tazewell does a fitting with an actress and draper, he’ll hum a tune that’s specific to the scene for that costume: “It’s getting the emotion to carry through.”

“If I’m drawing something and I know the music for the piece, I’ll be singing it” or playing the music in the background, “so there’s always something reinforcing the emotional quality of that moment,” he said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.