Making the Clothes Make the Man

In Be(com)ing Nixon on May 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm

May 14, 2014


The only four things you actually need to do theatre are an actor, some words and/or actions for the actor to perform, a place to conduct the performance, and an audience. All the rest of what theatre does are supposed to enhance the effect of these four things. Sound effects and enhancement, lighting, costuming, make-up, set, props are all adjunct to the four fundamental parts of the theatrical performance.

That said, theater is nearly impossible to do without at least some of those things. Unless the actor is naked, then what ever he is wearing is a costume (and even nudity is a kind of costume); and that costume affects everything else, including the actor’s sense of character, her relationship to and use of the performance space, and the audience’s response to the performance. The same is true of all the other aspects of theatre. In other words, live theatre is a system of interconnected parts. If you make a change in one part, then you create change in all the others.

Two weeks ago I cut off my ponytail, which had become fairly long over the past year, and one week ago I dyed my remaining hair (what there is of it) dark brown. I did these things to help me develop my stage character for Richard Nixon. One feels different with long gray hair than with shorter, darker hair. I have more often worn my hair fairly short than fairly long, so that wasn’t much of an adjustment; but I have been gray for more than ten years, so the brown hair was a bit of a shock. I still have to make a mental adjustment every time I look in a mirror. That also means, however, I am temporarily somewhat estranged from the person I see in the mirror, which allows me to connect that mirror person to the character rather than to my grayer self. It is Richard Nixon who is dark-haired.

It is important for me as an actor to begin this process of physical transformation, which includes adjustments to my way of speaking, my way of moving and my clothing on the stage as soon as possible in the process, so that I am comfortable with the character I have donned well before I first have to perform for an audience.

We still have a little more than two weeks before opening night, but last night I finally got a chance to do most of the show without my glasses. This required that I get as close as possible to “off-book” with my lines, because I can no longer read the small print in the script without magnification. Since the character I am playing does not wear glasses, the change was more than just cosmetic. My eyes and my facial expressions have always been two of my most important acting tools. Without glasses, my eye movements change, I orient my head to a conversation differently, and the audience can see more of my facial movements – eyebrows, forehead, nose, eyelids, even the expressive lines around and beneath the eyes. I also, perhaps surprisingly, found myself more conscious of other aspects of my face: my mouth, cheekbones, and the planes of my face. The historic Nixon has been broadly caricatured for his jowls, scowls and “beady” eyes. The more naturalistic portrayal and use of these features is enhanced when the glasses go away.

I also wore, for the first time, a jacket and tie during the rehearsal. Even though this wasn’t the costume I will ultimately wear for the performance, but an approximation, the effect was noticeable. I had to use my hands differently, stand differently, move with a little more formality and stiffness, and sit differently. I also became more conscious of the implications of costume changes and adjustments. There is, for instance, a very quick change necessary toward the end of the show from Nixon’s iconic blue suit into “golf attire” that I hadn’t really thought about before. The change signals more than just a change in scene and costume, it happens following a significant shift in the character himself. Changing clothes is a good way to help the actor shift into the character requirements for the new scene. An even smaller costume change earlier in the play allows for a more subtle shift in the character. Removing the jacket and tie for a short scene in which Nixon is slightly inebriated helps me to find the right nuance. One never wants to play inebriation too broadly outside of slapstick, but finding the right balance in a dramatic scene in which the character is not falling down drunk, but just somewhat loosened of his usual inhibitions can be tricky. Getting Nixon out of his coat and tie also gets him out of his more formal stiffness and reserve. He becomes more vulnerable and more open.

A lot of these kinds of changes can’t really happen until we get closer to performance. It’s simply not practical to do character make-up for every rehearsal or to start wearing performance costumes before tech week; but part of the process of developing a character for the stage is making choices about how the character looks both to himself and to the world.

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