Hello there, online Shakespeare aficionados. My name is Sadie Albert, and I am the Hospitality, Development, and Box Office intern. That’s right, Internet, I am a “Jack of all trades” intern, a curious dabbler, a girl absorbing as much knowledge as I can. Outside of the internship, I am a senior at James Madison University studying theatre and Spanish. I love music, coffee, and soccer. Above all, I love people, especially the unique stories that each person carries with her.
As I sat down to write my first blog post, I began to think about what I had learned so far as an intern. My favorite moment was when I had the chance of interviewing Erin West, the Costume Shop Manager and a costume designer at the American Shakespeare Center. She showed us the costumes that she was working on and the renderings for the Summer Season shows Romeo and Juliet, Return to the Forbidden Planet, and All’s Well that Ends Well. If that was not exciting enough, she took us to the attic of the Blackfriars Playhouse where I was able to see the costume storage. It’s like a fairytale up there. You could spend all day playing dress up. By looking at these costumes one thing is certain: the American Shakespeare Center prides itself on re-creating the world that Shakespeare lived via tools of the modern world.
The creative team blends contemporary approaches and design aspects with what the texts and historical evidence tell us Shakespeare’s company would have used in the early modern period. During Shakespeare’s career as well as at the American Shakespeare Center, the visual design fell nearly entirely to the costumes. Lighting design was sparse due to the lack of electricity, and large set pieces were expensive and heavy. There was no main curtain to drop for a scene change, so the words of the playwright created the setting. Shakespeare’s company, therefore, relied on costumes to aid the stories visually.
A major difference between theatre today and the theatre of Shakespeare’s time is that Shakespeare’s players dressed in what they knew. They did not design costumes that were historically accurate. For example, in Julius Caesar, it would seem logical to put the actors in togas according to the ancient Roman time period; however, in 1.2, Casca says, “he plucked me ope his doublet and offered them his throat to cut,” indicating that the actors were wearing doublets. As the above illustration of Titus Andronicus shows, they may have added faux-historical elements over Elizabethan-era clothing, but the base was still clothing that was modern for them.
Similarly, West tries to re-create that aspect of design, but with the knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities of our modern day. This method of design separates the Blackfriars Playhouse from many other theatres. Jim Warren and Ralph Alan Cohen founded the American Shakespeare Center to make Shakespeare more accessible and to help audiences understand his language, theatre and life. The costumes tell the story behind the character, even before a character opens his or her mouth. For example, in a recent production of Julius Caesar, the actor who played Caesar wore a modern day suit. The audience may not know much about ancient Roman history, but the suit explains what “type” of character he is merely by how he dresses. Likewise during Shakespeare’s time, the costume may not have been historically accurate, but would have provided the audience with an idea of who the character was even before he spoke.
End note: My supervisor, Heidi Findlay gathered the stories from the conversation with Erin and put together a fundraiser to raise money for the costume shop. $4,800 was raised, which was about 4x the anticipated goal of $1,300. Many people who donated shared their own personal stories. The entire fundraiser was special because all of the donors felt like they had a connection to Erin. Link to the fundraiser: http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/v.php?pg=1590
– Sadie Albert