From Screenplays to Costume Design: Film, Television, and Theatre Seniors Pursue Unconventional Theses

Author: Grace McDermott

Ashley Cavuto '21 adapted a favorite novel for the big screen.

For the past several months, Ashley Cavuto ‘21 has been hard at work trying to do justice to one of her favorite books: Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History. For Cavuto’s undergraduate senior thesis, the Film, Television, and Theatre (FTT) major has written a screenplay adaptation of the 1992 novel, which has never been made into a film.

“Every reader out there has been frustrated with their favorite books being adapted into bad movies,” says Cavuto. “As I’ve learned more about adaptation through various classes, and fidelity to the source material, I thought it would be really interesting to take that on myself.

For many students at Notre Dame, the undergraduate thesis is a culmination of four years of study in their major.

While a thesis commonly takes the form of long research papers analyzing a subject of interest, some students go a different route, and create a final project as part of their thesis.

Cavuto came into Notre Dame having already written a feature script and produced a documentary at her New Jersey high school. After taking several production-centered classes in the FTT program, she decided to return to screenwriting for her thesis.

It has proved to be a daunting yet exciting task, she says.

“People have this opinion of, ‘how hard can it be?’ because the material already exists,” says Cavuto. “But it’s really hard. There’s no inner monologue, and you have to figure out how to communicate that visually."

In facing this challenge, Cavuto's faculty advisor offered some advice.

"Something my advisor told me is that I really need to consider why this story needs to be told through a film, and [to consider] what can only be told through that medium,” she says.

Cavuto’s adaptation is only one example of a creative endeavor students pursuing thesis work can choose from.

Another FTT senior, Katie Paulsen, discovered a love of costume design at Notre Dame, which she explored alongside a major in economics.

For her thesis, she chose to design and create two costumes for Shakespearean play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The project has involved such adventures as hand-dyeing fabric patterns.

Throughout her time at Notre Dame, Paulsen has enrolled in courses covering design, construction, period costume-making, and even a class she describes as “Project Runway-esque,” in which students meet design challenges within a specific time frame.

Paulsen barely knew how to sew when she entered as an incoming first-year student. Nor did she have a theater background. She learned about topics like draping, patterning, and other costuming skills through her course selection.

For her senior thesis, Katie Paulsen '21 designed costumes for A Midsummer Nights' Dream.

“A lot of the construction projects I’ve done have been recreations of garments, not something I designed, so I wanted to take it to the next step and combine the two,” says Paulsen.

She spent time working on the design and applying for grants to buy fabric last semester, and she hopes that the rest will quickly come together during the next few weeks of the spring semester.

“I’ve always been interested in entertainment and art, and costume design is a good marriage of the two," she says.

Paulsen liked art, but never knew what to draw. "Costume design uses art skills within an existing script.”

Ellen O'Brien '21 wrote an original screenplay that follows the disappearance of a boy in a small town.

While Cavuto and Paulsen are both pursuing projects based on existing works, senior FTT major Ellen O’Brien’s thesis is taking the form of an original screenplay.

The screenplay tells the story of a Native American woman who becomes involved in a police investigation when a native boy goes missing. Screenwriting is O’Brien’s passion, but she says that classes outside the FTT department helped inspire this story.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and as I came to love film through high school and college, I knew I wanted to write screenplays,” she says. “I chose to write about this subject because I wanted it to have a larger social commentary. After taking a course in Native American Studies, it became a topic I’m really passionate about.”

Though not all majors require students to do a thesis, many require a final capstone project or paper through which students synthesize their studies.

Many students who choose to complete a thesis do so electively, though, as a sort of challenge to themselves to go above and beyond, or to study a topic in which they are particularly interested within their major.


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Originally published by Grace McDermott at on May 25, 2021.