July 12, 2013
The Clothes Make the [Wo]Man.
I’m just going to say it up front: I am an actor that absolutely loves designers. I adore them. I almost worship them. I may have years and years of training under my belt, I may be a ninja in the rehearsal room and on the stage, I may have the skills to pay the bills, and I may work with more than my fair share of fantastic actors and directors, but I’m going to say that so much of the success of my final performance is due to the fact that I am privileged to work with fantastic designers. The lighting designers make me look fantastic. The scenic designers give me a world to inhabit. The sound designers create the mood, the tone, and feel of a scene for me. But perhaps my best and most secret weapon as an actor is the work of the costume designer.
There is something transformative, and almost magical, about putting on a well made costume. Think about it. When we dress ourselves in the morning we put on clothes that express something: how we feel, our cultural identity, our job, our socio-economic status (or desired socio-economic status), our fashion sense, whether we feel happy or sad, open or closed off, our level of audacity that day, our modesty (or lack thereof), and any other number of things. Think about how different you feel and behave in a tight dress and heels versus a pair of sweatpants and some Uggs. What we put on our body both expresses and shapes who we are.
As an actor, one of my very favorite days of the rehearsal process is the day I get to try on my costume. Because that is the day that I truly feel like the character. That is the day that I look in the mirror and see the character looking back at me. These clothes that I would never wake up and put on tell me volumes about the character that I am portraying.
This is particularly pronounced whenever I am in a show that is set in a time period that is not modern. In The Liar at Livermore Shakespeare Festival, the action is set in Paris in the 17th century. And I can do all the research I want about the role of women in society, and how restricted they were and how few freedoms they were afforded, and how different their lives were than ours are today. And I can have an intellectual understanding of what that must have been like. But then. I go to the theater, step into my tights, slip on a pair of heels, and then a huge petticoat, over which I tie a bustle, over which I put a heavy underskirt, over which I put an enormously heavy over-skirt, and to crown it all off, get laced up tight into a corset. I am, quite literally, heavily restricted and weighted down by fabric and laces and buckles that are both a gorgeous literal representation and a stunningly effective metaphoric expression of the times. (Side note: when I first tried on my gorgeous–if weighty–costume for The Liar, my first thought was “Oh! This is why I wanted to be an actress when I was a little girl!” With all of its pitfalls, there are some serious perks to a life in the theater.)
And of course I haven’t even gotten to the wigs. A wig is perhaps the most effective way to render a person unrecognizable. Because my own hair is so short, I am often wigged for shows, which delights me to no end. My hair is short and fine, but I have been a ringlet-ed fiery redhead, a smoldering brunette, a wind-up doll with hair that stands on end, an ingénue with chestnut finger waves, a milk maid with thick and curly auburn locks, and many more. The wig is the final touch that completes the transformation. I have a habit of talking to my wig when I take it off the wig stand to put it on my head, addressing it as the character and saying “There she is.”
These trappings and toppings do what no amount of research or intellectual understanding or text analysis can: they actually, physically transform me into a being which I am not. And so, to all the costume designers far and near, those whom I have worked with, those who I have yet to work with, and even to those who I will sadly never have the pleasure to work with, I say: Thank you. For making me look gorgeous, and strange, and elegant, and unattractive, and masculine, and demure, and dashing, and smashing, and silly, and mysterious, and so wholly and completely unlike myself. I quite honestly could not do it without you.