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What do we do about costumes?


ART TIMES December, 2005


Is it possible to radically re-think what we do with costumes in the live theater?

In the late 19th and early 20th century, painters and sculptors found themselves dealing with a new freedom: the freedom to decide whether or not they wanted their work to be tied to surface reality. Photography offered a way to provide accurate representation of appearance; painters and sculptors no longer needed to do that.

Theater artists have been very slow to come to grips with the freedom offered to them by film. Like the painters and sculptors, there is no longer any reason why theater has to reflect a surface reality. It can be whatever it wants to be. It can be as purely a product of the unfettered imagination as it can manage, or it can be as concretely photorealistic as it might wish to be. It has all its options.

The slowest theatrical discipline in this regard is costuming. We see nonrealistic settings, lighting and makeup; we see some nonrealistic writing; we sometimes see nonrealistic props; we occasionally see actors who can break the bounds of realism. How often do we see costumes that are not naturalistic representations of real clothes? In a theater that no longer needs to be concerned with period unless it wants to be, we find that we can’t even put shoes on an actor without invoking a sense of time and place — which may be the last thing we want to do.

There is another interesting parallel with painting. There are very few ways to paint without putting color on a surface — very few indeed.

Likewise, it is an inevitable necessity that actors be costumed. Even nudity is, in essence, a costume; it is the choice of how we have chosen to dress or not dress.

Very well, then. Since the actor must needs wear something, even if only one’s birthday suit, what shall the actor wear?

What if acting were a sport? It certainly is an athletic activity; more so, in fact, than some sports. A vigorous performance of an active part can leave you just as ready for the showers and even a massage as any other brisk activity, sporting or esthetic.

Well, it is an interesting fact that almost all sports involve clothing. A particular kind of clothing is part of the equipment for most sports. Bicyclists have their Lycra suits; football players have their pads and helmets; riders have their jodhpurs and boots, and so forth. Dancers have leotards. Actors have — what?

What indeed? Throw out the idea of representation in clothing. What does an actor need? What kind of equipment worn on the body would be valuable? What elements of clothing would help make an actor more expressive, more evocative, more interesting? What clothing elements would be useful? In what ways?

Could it be that costuming could stop being a production expense, like paint and makeup, and become a capital expense, like lighting fixtures and speakers? Now wouldn’t that be interesting for the bottom line?

It just could be that there is a revolution waiting to happen at the cutting table. I wonder what it will look like?

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