Sunday, September 7, 2008

COSTUMING THE AMATEUR SHOW

In tandem with the Frank Beach book posted yesterday comes Dorothy Lynne Saunders' COSTUMING THE AMATEUR SHOW (1937), which, like the Beach book, emphasizes economy and style over everything else. Saunders is quick to point out the commonly-made errors -- for example, an outfit that looks great up close looks completely different from fifty feet away and under stage lights, or how it's inadvisable to use Christmas tinsel for that "shiny" look -- but from there, she takes you through a detailed process on styling, basic pattern making, and fabric choice, all done with the intent of showing you how to get the most from a minimal budget.

What makes it all the more fascinating a read is how it forces you (by necessity) to see things through the eyes of a 30s-era costumer. Sewing machines? We dont think so, thanks. If hand-stitching was good enough for our mothers, it should be good enough for you. Muslim for making a rehearsal costume? Please, isnt this roll of crepe paper good enough? Commercial patterns? How... nice, but no.

But get past the variances that have come with the passing of seven decades, and you'll hit a gold mine of useful information: how to build a pattern so it fits the actor properly, how to theatrically exaggerate contours, how to use colour to its best advantage over a large group ("Never use white for ancient Greeks; think pastels instead." -- who knew?). Granted, a great deal of this is covered today in a multitude of books, but in 1937, I daresay there werent many that also showed you how to make proper wings for a baby fairy.

Saunders also gives you examples of how to translate historical costuming into something more tenable for the smaller budget production -- how a simple tunic can work for two dozen different eras, with just the right accessories. Further, you learn how to make such props as paper roses, antique lanterns (made from shoe boxes!), and Miss Muffet's spider, all done with a Depression-era sense of economy.

But above all is her near-relentless insistence that you do not stop working on something because "it'll do". Rather, she promotes, in an almost ruthless fashion, a work ethic that says you stay with it till it's right, pure and simple. I have no doubt she would be horrified with the concept of costume rental houses when a bathrobe, some newspaper, a few yards of 4-guage silver wire, and a whole lot of sweat equity will do just fine, thank you. It's a very 30s-era mindset, one that emphasizes care, imagination and creativity. As is the case with the basic concept of the high school operetta, Saunders encourages you to find your own vision and your own voice instead of simply copying what someone else might have done.

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