Dressing for Trouble
I’ve costumed two shows so far this school year, and they were both interrupted by covid cases being discovered–first on campus, and then in the cast itself. In one case, the show was shut down four hours before we were due to open. But both productions have been able to adapt to these circumstances, and worked around people’s quarantines to record and, eventually, broadcast.
One which streamed last weekend is “Good Trouble: Shakespeare”, named for the John Lewis quote. This piece was developed by the cast and crew in response to current events. It was supposed to open over a month ago, and I was worried that the delay might make this topical piece feel less relevant, but no–we still feel isolated, lied to, and afraid for the future.
This production took scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and set them in an abstract version of our modern world. There were also several student-created pieces in response to both the Bard’s plays and how they relate to the student’s lives. It was very satisfying to work on a piece that was confronting the problems in our world. People often use theater as an escape, and that’s perfectly valid–I love dreamy, delight-filled fantasies as much as the next person. However, it can also carry powerful messages, and it feels good to stand up and say what I feel about all the blatant injustices we’re witnessing… well, to make costumes for actors to wear while they say things I believe to be important.
Because this was a piece we were developing with the students, it took a while to understand what shape it was taking. During the first couple weeks of rehearsal, when I am normally finalizing my ideas and starting to pull and build costumes, I was still waiting for a script. Then I was waiting for a cast list. The student-written pieces arrived even later in the process. Ideas about how we wanted things to look could change drastically between production meetings. This shortened the amount of time I had to work on costumes, and there were some scenes and characters I didn’t feel I fully understood until tech week. I only fully grasped what Martius (“Coriolanus”) should represent the night before we were scheduled to film that scene, which resulted in my work-job student and I frantically finishing his costume as the actor was getting ready to walk onstage.
The overall themes went through several stages. We decided fairly early on that the story would follow a group of protesters. At first I thought I would be dressing the actors in drab costumes, and only changing their face masks to represent different characters. I drew all sorts of strange designs for face coverings–because, oh yeah, on top of everything else, we have to make sure actors stay 6’ apart, and have face protection against airborne viruses. I looked at images of protesters from all over the world, and saw there were a couple schools of thought being represented in their clothing. Some followed the suggestions many organizers make of wearing neutral colors that made it hard to identify individuals. Others unify by wearing clothing in a predetermined color, or with a slogan, such as “Black Lives Matter”. Some boldly refuse to be anonymous and wear highly individualized, colorful garments. Others wear clothing that recall past civil rights activists or victims. It became clear that face masks weren’t going to be enough. Our theatrical protesters had to feel as individual as the real ones out on the streets. Some actors would also need more additional costume pieces for when they played people from outside the protester’s group. These characters usually represented what the protesters were fighting against, and their costumes needed to be unhuman to counterpoint our relatable protesters.
We set it in a protester’s camp in a junkyard. The opening speech is the prologue from “Henry V”, which urges the audience to suspend their disbelief, and imagine all the trappings of war and majesty that the players are unable to provide (“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them…”). It reminded me of how the government itself depends on the belief of the people. The power of any figure of authority is an illusion that depends on us being willing to act as if it is real. I wanted to play with this idea of illusion, and designed costumes to underline that theme. I used trash as my medium for most of the costumes—newspaper, plastic tarps, shopping bags, pull-tabs, and toilet paper rolls, to name a few. Some of these materiel created the outline of garments, but were physically half missing–such as Cordelia’s dress made from hoops stringed together like a cage, or the “Comedy of Errors” Duke’s suit made from plastic fencing that mirrored the fence on the border of Ephesus behind him.
Other characters in “Good Trouble: Shakespeare” include King Lear, dressed in a suit printed with symbols from the American $1 bill, Katherine and Petruchio as Presidential candidates wearing suits made from campaign signs, ‘Rumor’ from “Henry IV” sporting a dress made from newspapers and iphones, Falstaff and Prince Hal as frat bros, and a drag-queen Puck. In the “Romeo and Juliet” section of the play, everyone wore white t-shirts and smeared red or blue paint on themselves to declare their allegiance to one house or the other. Instead of a mantle, Mark Antony pulled a bloody American flag from Julius Caesar’s coffin.
The message I hope most of our audience will take away from this play is the power of the people. One of the first scenes is from “Coriolanus”, where we see Menenitus skillfully talk a crowd out of rioting. One of the last scenes is “Julius Caesar,” where Brutus convinces a crowd that Julius’ murder was necessary–and then Mark Antony convinces them to raise up against Brutus. Though the peasants in these scenes are being manipulated, it’s important to remember that without their compliance, the politicians cannot hold power. As modern-day peasants, we have more access to information–and misinformation–than Shakespeare and his contemporaries could have dreamed of. If we are able to distinguish between the two, we have the power to make some really good trouble.
Photo of Zari as ‘Rumor’, taken by Glen Minshall.