Every college student needs to take relatively silly classes in order to fulfill the requirements for a major, but few majors require you to take classes as silly as a Theatre Major. Especially if you’re an actor.
Because let’s face it: if you’re an actor, you want to ACT. If you want to be an actor, then most probably acting is your only real skill. Because who would choose to be an actor if you could do anything else? So. Because it is an undergraduate program, and it needs to appear that you are getting a well-rounded education, acting majors have to take classes in all the OTHER areas of the stage craft. Set design, carpentry, costume design, costume history, history of theatre … and then the performing side of it. Juggling. Mime. Ballroom dancing. Fencing. Stage craft. Oh yeah, and then a ton of acting classes.
The students in my class and the class above mine were all amazing actors, and we suffered through the majors-requirements because we had to. But my view, as an uppity 18 year old actress was: Why do I need to learn how to build a platform, or use a T-square so I can design a spiral staircase? Why do I care about the roller-coaster history of the hoop skirt? Why do I need to deeply delve into the un-workable theories of Artaud, when there’s a BIG EMPTY STAGE RIGHT THERE AND I WANT TO GO ACT ON IT!! But you know, it’s an education … and educated actors are a good thing. Actors who are educated in all areas of the theatre are usually better collaborators. This is all true.
And in looking back on it, I am not sorry that I had to build a model of a set for Hamlet and then do a presentation to the class on my model. I droned on, like an asshole: “And this mirror here signifies his own self-reflection…” I could barely stand my own bullshit. I had made it all up half an hour before, commiserating about it with Mitchell at Del Mors, over our 12th cup of coffee. “This chandelier can be raised and lowered for all of the court scenes …” I informed the bored hungover class, many of whom were my dearest friends, and we had all been up until 3 a.m. the night before, lip synching to “Dark Lady” and the Dream Girls soundtrack, laughing so hard we cried, gossiping like lunatics, and blatantly not doing any of our homework. I kept on with my presentation – unable to look any one of my friends in the eye – because then I would start to laugh uncontrollably, and surely fail the class. “And this dark curtain here signifies Hamlet’s unknowingness at the beginning of the play …” I got a D in Design class. The teacher hated me because I was an acting major, not a design major. I think he would have been happy if he could have just built sets and put them on display by themselves, without any pesky bratty little actors ruining his grand vision.
But the most ridiculous class we all had to take by far … by FAR … was Costume 210. Its status as “most ridiculous class ever” is legendary to generations of students who went through that school in the 70s and 80s. Stories were passed down from class to class. Sophomores commiserated with freshmen about it. “I know, I know, it’s awful … but just get a good grade and get it over with …” From what I can tell, nobody liked that class. Nobody. Costume 210 was the lowest level of costume class. You could move on and up through the ranks, if sewing and design was your thing – and probably at a higher level, costume design could be fascinating. But Costume 210 was the equivalent of a Psych 103 class or something: You had to take it to fulfill your major, so EVERYONE in the department (techies, actors, stage managers, directors) was in the class. Whether you could sew or not. It was a requirement. In the class we learned about sewing machines, we learned how to read patterns, we studied different costume designs …
I had never known boredom like I knew in that class.
Thank God I was in there with my best friends – Mitchell and Jackie. We clung to one another through the sewing drills, the fabric lectures, the “let’s rifle through this chest of swatches and talk about each one” afternoons …
Being in a class with those two could be a bit problematic however, because the danger of bursting into laughter at any moment was ever-present. Not only was the class really boring … but underneath the boredom, for whatever reason, hovered this ongoing sense of how funny the whole thing was, the absurdity of it … Mitchell, Jackie, Sheila … grimly huddled over our sewing machines like we were in a sweatshop on the Lower East Side, circa 1911… We would get VERY involved in our project, whatever it was, and pour ourselves into it heart and soul, forgetting the humor, the boredom, but then we would glance at one another, accidentally, and start laughing so hard we would have to get up and leave the room and stagger about in the hallway, weeping and wheezing and hooting.
So even though we were best friends, it really didn’t do us much good in there, because it put an enormous restraint on our natural camaraderie. We knew that if we even so much looked in one another’s eyes FOR A SPLIT SECOND – all would be lost.
Part of the humor was because of the teacher. Now, she was a lovely woman, and a hell of a costume designer. She’s written books on the topic, she is highly respected in the field. And I have to say: in looking back on it, it must have been so ANNOYING to have the three of us in her class, because … we just couldn’t get it together. We could not get it together, we were always on the edge of raving hysteria, and the actual CLASS and the information she was trying to impart came way way second to our own hilarity. We were extremely obnoxious. It was like that feeling you get during a very solemn church service, where you know you’re going to start laughing, and it’s gonna be big, and it’s gonna be loud, and the more you try to hold it in, the worse it gets …
The Costume shop was our prison. We sat on stools, around the big design tables, and watched the teacher show us how to measure someone’s “girth” (I still have nightmares about that image), we were told to feel up certain swatches and talk about it: “This feels a little bit rougher than that other swatch…” I am not kidding. Watching Mitchell feel a piece of silk, and then try to think of some deep perceptive thing to say about it, and then launching into some random monologue about its texture, was enough to make me feel like I would need to be locked away forever.
It was agony to get through that class without laughing. AGONY.
There were a couple of requirements for this class. You had to work on the costume crew for one of the shows (which – grrrr – meant that you had to forego BEING IN THE DAMN THING … You had to sacrifice a chance to ACT … and instead, run around backstage bearing woolen stockings and tricorn hats, and doing laundry after the show – while the rest of the CAST was down the street at Tony’s Pizza, having pitchers of beer. It was grim.)
Jackie and I were the “costume crew” for one show that had been written by a Rhode Island author, and it was about Rhode Island’s role in the Revolutionary War. It had been written for the bicentennial, and the year Jackie and I were in college, they put it up again. Needless to say, most of the roles were for men anyway, so I figured: All right, I’ll sit this one out. Jackie and I were costume mistresses extraordinaire. Because we were costume crew, it meant we could walk into the men’s dressing room while all the boys were in there, and we liked that part of our job very much. We stood around backstage, waiting to help actors with quick changes.
Mitchell was in the show, and he had a quick change. We had to very quickly get him out of his “brown wool leg-wraps” (yes, that was their official name. We never shortened it either, for some reason. We always said it full-out. “Hey, do you have Mitchell’s brown wool leg-wraps?” “Oops, gotta go back for his brown wool leg-wraps … hang on.”) Mitchell, in a small tricorn hat, came racing back stage, where we were waiting to change him. We got it down to a science. Untie the brown wool leg-wraps, step out of pants, step into new pants, change small tricorn for huge tricorn, put on blue jacket … race back out onstage in 30 seconds flat.
One night something went horribly wrong. The brown wool leg-wraps would not un-wrap. I heard Jackie, fiddling with them, mutter: “Shit.” Not a good sign. The second Mitchell heard her say “Shit” he knew he was in trouble, there was something wrong with his brown wool leg-wraps, and he was going to be late for his next entrance. In a frenzy, he reached down and tore at his brown wool leg-wraps, ripping them in the process. I helped him get into his pants, hat changed, jacket put on … and off he fled onto the stage, where we heard him immediately say his next line. He had been just in time.
Jackie, devastated, held the now-ripped brown wool leg-wraps, staring down at them. They looked forlorn. She had made them – also as part of the requirement to pass this dreadful class. She made them, and she had been very very proud of her brown wool leg-wraps.
I didn’t know what to say. I figured she should have time to grieve. I stood there, impotently, not knowing if I should hug her, or say something comforting … We could hear Mitchell carousing it up with his Revolutionary War buddies out on stage, shouting about taxation without representation. But backstage, we were silent. We didn’t speak, and then Jackie said to me sadly, in UTTER seriousness: “He ripped my brown wool leg-wraps.”
Costume class makes you lose your bearings. Costume class makes you say things like: “He ripped my brown wool leg-wraps” in a sincerely sad tone, without batting an eye.