Safety Pin Necklace, Absurdist Theatre, and Art as Action

Gabrielle's NecklaceSafety pins don’t poke you, so they are safe, but they are also a powerful symbol because they hold things together when they are broken.

As a costume designer I use them ALL THE TIME!

This necklace is for a costume in a play.  It is worn by the character, Gabrielle, who is selectively blind and deaf.  Her sewing machine speaks to her.  She acts as the allegory for Equality in a French Absurdist play, called the Madwoman of Chaillot.  It was written by Girandoux and it was first performed in 1945.  At Greenhills this term the students are doing this play with a new translation which has replaced obscure French political figures from the 30’s and 40’s with modern references, including a few to Trump, Goldman Sachs, and others.

We are doing the play at Greenhills School, a smaller bubble within the privileged bubble of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Working on this play during our current election cycle has opened conversations about politics, privilege, and lots of other things.

My designs are inspired by pioneering women artists, Sonia Delaunay, and Elsa Schiaparelli.  They are surreal and abstract and play into some of the overt symbolism that gets packed into French Absurdist theatre.

I will write about them in a separate post, but let me describe for you Gabrielle’s costume: She wears a hat that has hands that cover her ear or eye, whichever is currently selectively deaf or blind.  Her outfit has hands holding her back at the waist to keep her from acting.

She is the personification of the saying: See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.  Inaction as the equalizer before evil.

As an artist-teacher, costume designer and privileged white person, in some ways the selectively blind and deaf madwoman whose sewing machine speaks to her couldn’t be a better archetype for me to favor.

I cannot see or feel or hear the oppression that happens to many members of my community, despite my best efforts to do so.  My perspective is as limited as that of Gabrielle.

However, nobody is holding me back from acting.  I live my life by reaching out to my whole community.

In addition to my job with students of privilege, I am also the Program Director at FLY Children’s Art Center in Ypsilanti.  We take art programs to the kids in the schools and have community events, free and affordable classes in our studio in the Riverside Arts Center.

I do not go out and protest* with Black Lives Matter.  It addresses a specific problem, and while I’m proud to be a white ally as often as I am “woke” enough to do so, I am not a valuable warrior as a protest organizer.

I am more valuable as a teacher and connector between communities, and that is how I see the safety pins.  A way to open conversations.

I plan on making myself one of these safety pin necklaces so that I can hand safety pins to other blind and deaf people who want to be able to connect to members of their community and be stronger together by starting conversations with each other.

Who says the safety pin thing is just for white liberal people to feel good about themselves?  Why should it be just an instrument of privilege?

Let’s make safety pins into something that can be worn by anyone.  We can all stand together and wear them.  I know I probably sound as blind and deaf as the character Gabrielle now, but I think there are powerful ways to grow stronger together and overcome implicit biases and eventually overcome systemic racism.

Right now we are falling into the trap where we are looking at each other like we are the 2-D allegorical characters whom I’ve built costumes for this last several weeks.  As Chimananda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED talk about how we see Africa, we Americans are not single stories, and we are not two dimensional or metaphoric.

We are live human beings who are striving to help each other.

I encourage everyone to put on a safety pin and talk to each other.  If you see me, ask for one, or maybe I’ll stop and give you one!

By listening to each others’ stories and getting to know each other, maybe we will be less blind and deaf to one another.

Right now, by hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil, we are allowing evil to happen.

Even in our Ann Arbor bubble, yesterday a woman was threatened and forced to remove her hijab near the U-M Campus.  If any one of us had been there to hear it and see it and do something, maybe she could have been spared that assault.

[Edit: I read something yesterday evening after I wrote this that resonated.  A 40 year old white man posted on Facebook in one of the “secret groups” that Hillary referenced in her speech about why he wants to wear a safety pin.  He said something like, “It’s not because the marginalized or frightened people need to know.  It is because the other white people need to know how many of us there are.”

If we wear them and talk about what it means and be rational about why we are upset, maybe it is a good reminder to be an ally in spaces where marginalized people are invisible because they are inhabited by people who are all white.  The more proverbial version of “Locker Room Talk” is one way of putting it.

I have had white people who say some really mean and ignorant things in front of me be surprised when I call them on it in the past!  I’m already a stand-out without the pin, so it is a bit shocking that people ever say ignorant stuff in front of me, but sometimes they do.

This idea is most useful if BOTH Liberals and Conservatives who do not support the angry rhetoric of the campaign put on the safety pins and agree to stand up when they hear ignorance.]

As long as you plan on being safe with each other, whether you are, Liberal or Conservative; Black, White, Asian, Arab, Native American, Non-White Latino; LGBTQA; Rich, Poor, or Anyone Else who isn’t mentioned in this list!

Putting on a safety pin is not enough, but it is threading the sewing machine so we can hear it speak as Gabrielle does.

 

*[edit 11/14, addendum about protest] I do not protest much anymore.  I believe that Black Lives Matter, that Black Youth Matter, that Black Art Matters.  Implicit Bias, however, is hard to fight with protest.  It has to be un-learned.  I should know:  I also suffer from a variety of implicit biases about race, gender, and other human differences upon which I endeavor not to act, but I am imperfect, sometimes deaf and blind to my own biases.  As I have grown older I find more continuous engagement in the communities where I live to be more effective than street protest.  However, I have participated in a few protests in the last several years, including one for BLM in Detroit on Noel Night a few years ago, and given time and money to other kinds of community happenings that hopefully have helped raise awareness.  The ineffectiveness of the Iraq War street protests left me very disillusioned with that form of political discourse.  Many friends of mine were arrested during that time, and nobody listened to us, so I began to find other ways of connecting and countering ignorance by listening to people, trying to form lasting community connections, and becoming an artist-teacher instead of trying to be a gallery or commercial artist.

Brecht, Aelita, and other Inspirations

Natella Abashwili in the CourtroomOne of my other recent projects was at the same school where we did Charlie Brown, but with the “Upper School” students (Grades 9-12). It was the play by Bertholt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It takes place in the Caucuses region in what is present day Georgia. It is not about “white” people, though if one did it as a period piece, set in the 1940’s and the 1920’s, I suppose people in that part of Western Asia are white.

The play is a parable based somewhat upon Solomon’s Judgement, but also focusing on the political situations in Russia and Germany at the time. That is, the Historical framework upon which the play sits is that of the Bolshevik Revolution in the late 1910’s, the ensuing chaos, and political drama.

The director, Emily Wilson-Tobin chose to use the current influence of The Hunger Games as a lens to help the students relate to the sideways angles of Brechtian drama, and make the underlying unfamiliar history relatable. The costumes in The Hunger Games, by Judianna Madkovsky have crazy lines, beautiful high-end construction, and a finish that in 9 weeks with 2 plays going at once weren’t going to be possible.

Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow

To solve this quandary from the beginning, we planned to use non-traditional materials which don’t need to be hemmed, can be glued rather than sewn, and theoretically are cheaper than fabrics, since many of them can be got for free. For example, the Balloon Dress above, or the wild pink-ribboned farthingale.

The Balloon Dress was actually one of the more expensive pieces because it went through several iterations and in order to allow the actress practice time with it, we had to re-inflate and add balloons at a few points. We made it modular rather than all taped together so that this would be possible.

[cincopa AwCAld76z_h_]

First, looking at the costumes in The Hunger Games, I realized there was some relationship to the costumes in Fritz Lang movies, and in a Russian Film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, a film which drew my gaze while browsing in Paris at a DVD shop because it holds my namesake, and held my attention because it had such wonderful sets and costumes.  It is a silent film, made in 1923.

So in the costumes for Greenhills’ production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, as well as the set, we were most influenced by Russian and German Avant-Garde Cinema and Constructivist painting between the Wars than by the real clothes people in the region would have worn.

It was fun to work with students, and many of them helped with the design process, or just came to help out a little here and there. They learned a little about how we would do things in a larger scale professional production, about how to make design choices, and how some things are good on paper but less so on the proverbial boards.

For those who were interested, I also talked a little about my own family’s history and experiences at that time in Karelia, on the other side of Russia; the social connotations of dress and how to manipulate the audience’s perceptions; and how the history and social connotations of clothing and fashion are still present today, though in a different form.

Director: Emily Wilson-Tobin

Music Director and Composer: Benjamin Cohen

Tech Director: Laura Bird with assistance from Tim Ebeling

Assistant Costumers: Sarah Ceccio, Luena Maillard

Assistant Makeup Designer: Cat Bonner

(All Photos except Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow, are by Gabe Linderman, Greenhills student)

Contemporary Costumes

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The next play was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. These photos show everyone onstage at once, during the baseball game. There was a cute bit where the “Woodstocks” rearranged the letters of the word “TEAM” to spell different things, concluding with the actual real spelling.

As you can see we did not go with a super cartoony set of clothes, but rather contemporary clothes against a cartoony scene with movable pieces. The set and Direction again by Laura Bird, Musical direction by Ben Cohen, and Technical Direction by Ben Ebeleing.

Since it was done with middle-school students, this is a blurry photo so you get an idea of the design, but the students’ privacy is not compromised.

Play-ing Around

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This summer, through a mysterious series of events, I fell back into the world of making and/or sourcing costumes for Theatre.  Since then I’ve costumed a total of 3 shows.

The first show was Lend Me a Tenor, by Ken Ludwig.  The second was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, by Clark Gesner (inspired of course by Charles Schultz), and the third was The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertholt Brecht.

Without giving too much away, it is a fun play, and there are 2 Otello’s on stage at once, and there are plenty of fun scenes involving various states of undress, and a dress like the Chrysler Building.  Since it’s no longer playing, perhaps I should tell you more, but instead, I’ll just refer you to my photos on Flickr.

The photo in this shows the denouement in which the whole cast is on stage and all the events become clear to some and muddy to others.

Director and Designer Laura Bird, other crew, let me know if you want a plug!

Cutting

Uncut Fabric

I have a dark secret: I am afraid to cut into cloth for the first time when I begin making something.

This despite being an experienced pattern making, sewing, and crafting maven.

When the scissors go through the cloth, it makes a whispering noise, and a rumble as the scissors graze the table.  It is visceral to me, like having my fingernails or hair cut.

But unlike hair and fingernails, fabric doesn’t grow back into whole cloth again.  If you are sewing, you can rip out seams a few times before the fabric gets worn-looking, but once the scissors have nipped a little to much to the left or right, you can’t magically put it back together.

Beyond that there is a deeper fear.  One of the reasons I love to sew is that it presents all these possibilities.  A piece of fabric could become anything.  A piece of cloth, long and rectangular can become a shirt, a bag, a tent, a skirt, a hat, a dress!  But the minute you cut a little here and there, the minute it is no longer full of infinite possibilities.  If you cut one way it becomes an A-line, another a circle-skirt.

It goes from limitless to limited in a split second with that whispering growling sound of the scissors running against the table.

But without cutting into the cloth, there is only so much practical use for it.  Yards of fabric can’t just be tied onto the body and pinned in place.  At the very least fabric must be hemmed, and useful though they are, safety pins are not elegant.

To create beauty and draw out what the fabric has to express is the reason that I love designing, patterning, and sewing.  And there is no better feeling than to see how the finished product looks, all pressed and buttoned on its new owner.

But still, as I begin to cut, I am flooded with self doubt.  Did I listen to the cloth?  Have I made it fit properly? Would it be better as one of the other limitless things it could become?  Then I take a deep breath and brace myself for the sound of the breaking of a million possibilities.  Swoosh, Growl, Snip.

Perhaps that’s why I began to do the slash-and-knit tee-shirts.  Because they are something to start with but it isn’t something particularly beautiful, and if I fail, I haven’t ruined an infinite possibility, only a much more limited one.  Even still I get a thrill when I cut into the jersey and feel the slice of the fabric on the rotary cutter.  But they are cheap, and discarded, so if I fail, the cost is low.

I’m pushing my limitations, cutting into places that I’ve never gone.  Trying to say and do the right things without fear so the new possibilities before me can be shaped into a beautiful life.  Sometimes though the edges are rough, and it feels more like a crazy quilt than a beautiful mola, but the images are starting to become clear.

Swoosh, Growl, Snip!