The set and costume choices used in theater are akin to how authors describe settings and the clothing their characters wear. Everything’s a choice—a tangible one or the words used to describe it. People (readers) evaluate our surroundings and what people wear all the time in everyday life, which puts a burden on writing about them. Are the details we choose meaningful? This is what set and costume designers understand to a fare-thee-well.
Where Are Your Characters? The Setting
Sets and costumes were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Authors can use their descriptions in the same way, in order to establish a vision of a person or place in the reader’s mind. Auntie Mame wearing “all her pearls” (tells you everything you need to know about her!) or the foggy treetop setting for Nick Petrie’s escaping hero in Burning Bright.
The big difference is, of course, the theater audience can take in the set and costumes in a glance, whereas a written text works best when it focuses on a few key aspects. Does it matter that the carpet is beige, or is it more important that all the tables and shelves are glass (later to be broken)? Does it matter that the protagonist’s shoes are black, or will it be consequential that those shoes are the aptly-named stilettos? As a reader, I don’t care that a woman’s suit is gray, I care that she hasn’t changed style or color in forty years.
Innumerable specific choices in the set design—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—can be brought into the visual field or, in writing, into the text, to convey not just what a room looks like, but to suggest the kinds of things that have happened there and can happen again.
What Do Your Characters Wear?
To convey a sense of the status and personality of a tale’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions! Or think of a Walter Mosley character wearing a wife-beater.
Dressing a character in all black or all white also suggests something about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant (the pictured costume accomplishes a similar message).
Writers can’t achieve the same visual shock on the page but can always rope in a gobsmacked observer. Next time you go to the theater or watch a well-designed tv show, notice how the choices about sets and costumes shed light on the story and characters. Those skills are there for adaptation in writing. Choices (good, bad, or indifferent) have been made.