I spent the past few days dying long silks for my upcoming production of Antony and Cleopatra at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare.
I haven’t done any dye work in a long time; I had forgotten how fun it is. Unwrapping the dyed cloth is always a surprise; I know the general shape of the dye pattern, but not the precise nature of it.
One challenge of working in “original practices” Shakespeare is that it is not a particularly decadent style. The set is a simple wall of wood or curtain, with perhaps some small bits of furniture. A lot is left to the imagination. I love that–but I also am always interested in how we can push its edges. How can we help our audience imagine Cleopatra’s court, famous for its excesses, on our little stage?
Our whole team has been interestingly on the same page as we think about this problem; in some cases, one of us has had a thought and another had already written it down to suggest. Our visuals are very much inspired by paintings, this time around. I don’t always work that way, but they are speaking to me.
Some of our design elements are inspired by Klimt, lots of rich moving cloth there. Katherine sent me an article about a project where a photographer recreated Klimt paintings with models, and it’s been inspiring the way I’m thinking about the images.
Another is “The Favorite of the Emir,” by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (which, yes, is orientalist to a fault, but also damn beautiful, and you could easily say the same of Antony and Cleopatra itself). Notice the rich fabric all over the place.
I’ve been thinking as well about Maxfield Parrish. When I was a child, my mother had a book of Parrish prints, and I remember paging through them, admiring the rich colors.
In particular, I admire how fabric is used to indicate freedom in Parrish’s work. It moves like it’s alive. And Antony and Cleopatra is, at least in part, a play about freedom.
So I dyed some silks.
I think that by billowing them and making changes behind them as they fall, we can create some magic appearances. They also can suggest the river–which was my original point, but also can be used to create the richness of Cleopatra’s palace.
W. H. Auden wrote: “Antony and Cleopatra are saying, ‘I want to live forever.’ […] The enemy is the passage of time.” He’s not wrong. When I ask myself, “What is the thesis of this play?” the answer I keep coming back to is, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” The play is about wanting to freeze a moment in time, wanting to always live in this golden moment–but the world keeps moving onward.
As time moves and both Antony and Cleopatra and the world around them shift and change and grow, they keep trying to return to how things were, but they can’t. Heraclitus got it right: They can’t step in the same river twice, because both they and the river are constantly changing.
There’s that river again. It’s never far away in this story.
It wasn’t until I was nearly done with the process, hanging the dyed fabric out on the line, that I remembered that I did a great deal of dying for my previous production of Antony and Cleopatra, as well. I had quite forgotten about that until I looked at my hands–bright blue despite my gloves–and suddenly remembered being in the costume shop at Hiram College, surrounded by spackle buckets full of dye, and my hands, bright purple.
For that production, I dyed the costumes. We color-coded them to make the story perhaps a bit clearer: blue for Cleopatra and Egypt, purple for Rome. Antony and Enobarbus both had a bit of each.
I made cloaks for the dozens of messengers that were reversible–we had them hanging on pegs backstage, and actors would tie them on with the right color outward on the way to their entrance.
I seem to recall a dramatic moment when someone turned their cloak over, defecting from Antony, but the specifics of that are lost to me now (Enobarbus, I remember, had a blue/purple sash that he removed).
I thought then, as I do now, that variegated dye patterns fit in this play. The story moves like the river, relentlessly onward. Attempts at blocking the tide are futile. Uneven dye patterns are made in water and mimic water. The ones from my 2003 production were shibori, a Japanese dye technique. The ones I made this week used a low-water immersion technique. But the blurred boundaries and the depth and range of color are the same.
I love how habotai silk moves. It catches and holds the air as it falls. It can bunch or fold up in to a tiny space and unfurl with a snap. The sound and weight of it are dramatic.
I have a bunch of ideas on how to use it, and I’m excited to discover more alongside the actors. What would you do with it?
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