- Where'd I Put My Character?The Costume Character Body and Essential Costuming for the Ensemble Actor
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.—Shakespeare, Henry V, prologue
In a small theatre housed in a former Commonwealth Edison substation on the North Side of Chicago, ten actors are trying to bring Treasure Island to life on Lifeline Theatre's stage. The actor playing Captain Flint runs offstage, removes his captain's coat, takes a deep breath, and sips from his water bottle. He has one whole page before he has to come back as Israel Hands in the next scene. Then he hears his cue line. "What the …? They skipped a page!" He looks around frantically: "Where'd I put my character?" The assistant stage manager points to a black thing on the floor. Relieved, the actor puts on Israel's eye patch and dashes to his next entrance just in time. "Yarr!"
Chicago storefront theatres, as exemplified by Lifeline Theatre, regularly cast a small ensemble of actors to play multiple roles. When a company produces an ambitious play with a small cast, distinguishing between multiple characters becomes an opportunity for discovery between the director, costume designer, and the actor. When the additional challenges of budget, space, blocking, and time are factored in, sometimes the only visual indication between shifting characters comes down to a single garment or costume prop. The manner in which these tangible pieces are determined and the way they then inform both the work of the actor and audience reception are excellent ways to reflect on the powerful relationship of the performer and the costume. This essay examines the function of costume within this type of production model. Further, it looks at the manner in which costume becomes a type of body to be worn by the actor, and the way in which the multiple "costume bodies" worn by an ensemble actor create a composite body that contributes added meaning [End Page 49] for the audience. Additionally, best practices for costuming an ensemble actor are outlined and explored.
The majority of the non-Equity and smaller Equity theatre companies of Chicago produce in spaces converted for performance. Former retail businesses, car dealerships, fire stations, and factories become venues for resident companies and rental spaces for itinerant companies. Space and budgets are always used "creatively"; many of these retrofit venues lack proper backstage space or adequate dressing rooms. Even if a company has the budget to fully cast Much Ado About Nothing, there might not be enough room either on or offstage to contain all the actors, let alone provide and store their costumes. Despite the physical and financial constraints, the artistic vision of these Chicago storefront theatres is boundless.
When challenged by space and budget, casting fewer actors for productions is a sensible solution for these companies. Lifeline Theatre, founded in 1982 in Chicago, focuses on bringing new works and adaptations to the stage. They adapt epic novels such as Tolkien's The Two Towers, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and Alexandre Dumas père's The Three Musketeers and perform them with ten actors, a costume budget of $2,000, and ambitious (some might say reckless) imagination. Actors cast in Lifeline productions are assigned to "tracks," which can include one to twenty different characters. For example, the actors playing the titular Musketeers play only Aramis, Porthos, Athos, and d'Artagnan. However, the actor playing Cardinal Richelieu also plays four other characters, including a soldier in service to the cardinal, a soldier in service to the king, and various ruffians for the Musketeers to dispatch.
Costume designer Rosemary Ingham likens designers to "crime scene detectives" searching for clues about characters, which become the basis for the costume designs.1 Factoring in demands from countless sources, a costume designer fashions the external "body" of a character, something that requires an impressive understanding of costume history, literature, art history, theatre, clothing construction, anthropology, and human psychology. Ingham states that "designers have a special knowledge about the effects of design on human responses."2 The costume designer curates the visual external body of the character while the actor gives life to...