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performing arts

To dress the actor’s soul

Thesis reveals the evolution of costume importance in the modern theater

Eduardo CesarCostumes from The Marriage of Figaro: Stanislavski’s colorsEduardo Cesar

If in our daily lives, as the old saying goes, clothes make the man, on stage they are capable of creating Counts, Dukes, ordinary women, nymphs and Goddesses, all that the imagination of a set designer wishes to create. “Costumes are the link between the actor and the eye of the spectator. They are lines, forms, colors and meanings that have the function of linking the actor to the audience, giving clues about the one who is wearing the costume, being able to show externally the internal forms of a character”, explains Fausto Viana, who in March defended his doctorate thesis with the theme Costumes of scenic renewals in the 20th century: a study of seven set designers. With it we can understand the theatrical magic, confirming before our very eyes that clothes make the man.

Analyzing the creative work of the fashion costumes of Appia, Craig, Stanislavski, Artaud, Brecht, Reinhardt and Mnouchkine, Viana reveals the importance of dress in the development of performing art and how they are an important component in the search for a modern theatre, which looks towards total art, made from apparent simplicity, but with immense subtlety and expressive force. The researcher organized a show of fashion costumes from six of the plays analyzed in his doctorate.

The exhibition, Dress and Scene, is on display at Sao Paulo’s Municipal Theatre until the 21st of June in the Salão dos Arcos [Arch Room]. There one will find scene costumes from Les Cenci (Artaud), 1789 (Mnouchkine), The Marriage of Figaro (Stanislavski), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Reinhardt) and Hamlet (Craig).

“The main characteristic of their work is the search for the wholeness, for the integration of all of the elements which are present in a play. The dress is part of this search because besides being part of the whole, it dresses and reveals the central core of the spectacle: the actor and his body”, he says. Curiously, all of the process began with a discovery that today is pretty obvious: the world and obviously the actors who bring about this scenic world, are three dimensional.

For centuries, set designers were happy with beautiful and empty costumes and scenery made up of painted backdrops. All of the directors researched by Viana realized that there was the need for change: new scenery was needed, more expressive, in order to remove the spectator from a passive mode. All art forms must be at the service of a greater ideal than that of beauty: adaptation to dramaturgy. “It was necessary to express the scenic truth from inside to outside, from the interior of the artist to his exterior, like a truth lived and not falsely represented.”

The pioneer for this new path was a shy Swiss who had little practical contact with the theater during his life, although his ideas influenced the creators who followed him: Appia. A fan of Wagner, he perceived the limits of two-dimensional scenery and the possibilities of bringing together arts by way of a grouping of lights, forms and colors. “Everything that is false on stage annoys Appia. What he wanted to do was to redirect the theatre, working it like a live work of art that brings all the others together to impact the spectators”, Viana observes.

Who in truth took his theorizations onto the stage was the English actor and director, Edward Gordon Craig who, starting from paintings and sculptures, intended to fight against the forms of interpretation and archaic representation of his time. And he played a duet (something problematic by all accounts) with an ingenious Russian who also wanted to change the theatre, Constantin Stanislavski. Together they set up an anthological Hamlet (in 1911, in the Art Theatre of Moscow), in which Craig could attempt to break with the static raltionship between stage and audience and defended the universality and simplicity of costumes as a dramaturgical force. The next step was taken by the Frenchman, Antonin Artaud, who equally wanted something new and admired painting as an inspiration.

He went as far as to employ the painter Balthus (although he, Artaud, was considered “a painter in the middle of comedians”) to work on the scenery and costumes for his spectacle, The Cenci. “The idea of scenic clean-up, the absence of excesses, the use of elements that were meanings, that had an evident symbolism, are Appian options that Artaud incorporated into his work”, notes Viana. Artaud wanted, more than his predecessors, the integration of fashion costumes into the action, and, as such, made options: the costume, for example, should be the least fashionable as possible, a “rejection of the latest fashion as they encloses the exterior and ephemeral.” As well as this, Artaud was a pioneer in working with oriental elements, a characteristic that would later influence set designers.

On analyzing the Bali Theatre, he brought to his own theatre the idea of the costume as being more than just clothes, but in fact a ritual instrument. Bertolt Brecht would take this new concept to the extreme in his plays, openly rooted in analyses of the oriental theatre and beneficiaries of his conquests. For the German, nothing must be in the scenery that does not deserve to be there. Simplicity was the order of the day.

“But it was a profoundly sophisticated simplicity and emerged from the interaction among all that made up the spectacle. You look at the attire for a Brecht play and think that it could have been made at home. But it’s an illusion, since there had been meticulous planning, for months, so that the clothing had the texture or the color that he had been looking for with his characters”, says Viana. The reason for this? It’s in the words of his great scenery partner: “To copy reality is not enough; reality needs not only to be recognized but also to be understood”. Therein, for example, lies all of the significance of the spoon that the protagonist of Mother Courage carries in the pocket of her costume.

“The attire of a Bretch like character is not a literal attire. It is a language in which the clothes speak of the man, the memories, miseries, and struggles that have fallen upon him”, in the definition of Roland Barthes.Although defenders of opposite theatres, the same idea of care with scenic costumes is present in the creations of Stanislavski who, according to Viana, continues being badly interpreted as a mere realist-naturalist. “For Stanislavski, they have a vital role in the process of characterization and are important to help in the new relationship between actors and spectators”, the researcher explains.

“When you have created a role, you will know how the wig, the beard the clothes are important for an actor to create a personality. The attire stops being something simple and acquires, for an actor, a type of sacred dimension”, the Russian wrote. Dress was fundamental so that the actor could create, inside himself, the man in allof his psychological and external dimension.

Nevertheless, it was Max Reinhardt who managed to arrive at the ideal measure between what the actor intended and what the public wanted. “What I have in mind is a theatre that will bring joy to people”, he stated. Therefore, he increased the status of the clothes designer and placed him on an equal footing with the lighting engineer, the set designer and all of the others involved in a production, with the purpose of attaining the perfect work, capable of “bringing joy” to the public.

Thus, like him, Ariane Mnouchkine, the only living set designer researched by Viana, the director of the Thêátre du Soleil, considers dresses/clothing/costumes “as her friends”. “Treat them well. They are your enemies if badly made, if they don’t fit well together. Pure skin is difficult to use as masks”, the Frenchwoman usually says. “The actors have all of the liberty of creation, which can make the initial project change. During all of the rehearsal process, they have at their disposition the costume designers and lots of cloth. In accordance with the needs of the actor and of the staging, they ask that the attire be made”, explains Viana.

The project
Fashion Costumes of the Scenic Revolutions of the 20th Century: A Study of Seven Set Designers (nº 01/03204-9); Modality Doctorate Grant; Coordinator Ingrid Dormien Koudela Communications and Arts College/USP; Grant Holder Fausto Viana Communications and Arts College/USP