Elizabeth Wislar, Dede Ayite, & Clint Ramos discuss decolonizing the costume imagination. Decolonization is the active resistance against colonial powers. It is a shifting of political, economic, educational, cultural, & psychic independence & power to a nation’s own indigenous peoples. Decolonizing art requires an unlearning of white supremacy; a de-centering of Eurocentric ideals of art, aesthetic, & design; & the dismantling of institutions that are steeped in colonization, including capitalism & white American theatre.
Mentioned In This Episode:
History of Singapore
Colonialism in Singapore Today
Colonization in The Philippines
Filipino-American Colonial Mentality
Colonialism in Ghana
Resisting Colonialism in Ghana
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Scott Rudin Abuse Allegations
More From Our Guests:
Conscious Costume Profile of Elizabeth
Daily Beast Profile of Dede
Clint's Column for Deadline
Racial Equity Tools for Decolonization
The Fashion and Race Database
Eurocentric Beauty Standards
Sustainability & Colonialism
Visit our Bookshop for more reading recs!
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Host: Johanna Pan
Producers: Shayna O'Neill & Johanna Pan
Music: Jay Ong
Audio Engineer: Justin Sabe
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Johanna: Hi everyone, and welcome to Dirty Laundry: Unpacking the Costume Closet. This month’s episode is about decolonization and what that means to me, to the art of theatre, and for design. So I am from Singapore, a country that was colonized by the British from 1819 to 1965. But I’m also Singaporean-Chinese and what that means is that I might have some indigenous ancestry - not all my ancestry is very clear since my grandmother was adopted – but I’m probably mostly Chinese. Chinese people are not indigenous to Singapore and some of my great-grandparents migrated to Singapore from China in the 1800s. So I want to acknowledge that I grew up in a country that was no longer colonized when I was born, but still maintains a lot of colonial superiority complex. But I also want to acknowledge that I am not an indigenous Malay person and honestly come from a lot of privilege as a Chinese person in a Chinese-majority Singapore. But I still understand what it means to have grown up in the shadow of a country that maintains the narrative that England was our benevolent colonizer that raised us up from a tiny fishing village to the major shipping powerhouse we are today. Because of my privilege, I really didn’t understand what any of this meant until I came to America. I also want to acknowledge that what we talk about today in this episode is the American theatre in the continental United States. The United States is still a colonized country and colonialism is an ongoing process. The United States is stolen land built on the bodies of a stolen people and that is something we have to reckon with every day in America. Decolonization theory defines decolonization as the active resistance against colonial powers, and a shifting of power towards political, economic, educational, cultural, and psychic independence and power that originate from a colonized nation's own indigenous culture. But for me, decolonization in my art is an unlearning- unlearning white supremacy; unlearning Eurocentric ideals that have pervaded art, aesthetic, and design; recognizing when I or others say or do things that stem from a colonized mindset; you know, or dismantling institutions that are steeped in colonization, like capitalism or white American theatre.
With that, I’d love to introduce Elizabeth Wislar, a multi-award winning costume professional, a large scale textile and integrated technology artist, a wage equity warrior, and she teaches at James Madison University. She has native ancestry and is a registered member of the Northern Cherokee Nation. I met Elizabeth while working with Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, which you might remember from our interview with Jessa Raye-Court in our first episode.
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J: Ok, Elizabeth, we’re just gonna jump in. Ok? What does decolonization mean to you?
Elizabeth: Oh wow, ok. It means decentering, um, the white majority in the continental United States. So I know that, uh, we tend, we want to have more of a global perspective, and so I just want to recognize that when we are talking about decolonization with regards to my work, I am talking about the continental United States. But, um, decentering, um, those who came in and wrote their own histories on top of others.
J: Would you like to share a little bit more about yourself, Elizabeth, as well, yeah?
E: Oh, thank you. I, um, prior to being an instructor at a university, I spent close to 20 years as a full time freelance costume designer and technician, which means that I built costumes as well as designed them. I worked, um, based out of Chicago and I had a very, um, robust career. And, um, I actively participated in wage inequity. So I am now trying to help and fix that.
J: That’s actually kind of hard, right? Because I feel like it’s by participating in this system and by playing any part of the game, we’ve all participated in wage inequity. And that’s just something that we all have to live with a little bit. And knowing that we’ve done that and have to do something about it, do something differently now, um, especially.
E: Yes. Yeah. And I think, I, and that kind of segue-ways into the work in decolonization, is recognizing what is colonized, recognizing that our, our textbooks, our curriculum, our understanding of what is traditional dress- um, I, I attended a program that taught me about, um, all of the Western dress, and so I can tell you all about different time periods and what people wore in royalty in France in 1700s, but when it comes to full understanding of clothing, to the full global perspective, to full cultural understanding, um, I’ve, I’ve had to do that work. And so trying to integrate that into the learning and understanding now of clothing history, is that it shouldn’t just all be filtered through one perspective. And also when we do look at that, we need to understand that some of those early garments, who created them?
J: There’s actually a really great exhibition right now that’s actually centered around Martha Washington’s, um, slaves who made the clothing that she wore. Which I really appreciate, because it’s actually shining light on the work that they did and their experiences, as opposed to specifically, like, Martha Washington’s perspective of, like, how those clothes were and were worn.
E: Yes. (laughs) Yes. We have for hundreds of years, um, been on stolen land using stolen labor. And so, just in acknowledging that, just in saying that out loud and normalizing conversations around it, we can start to move forward.
J: Yeah. I’m so glad that you brought up costume history, actually, because that’s something that, to me, is really near and dear to my heart as well. Because I think that costume history is kind of where we, I think, as costume designers really first face, um, this very white, western perspective, uh, Eurocentric perspective of everything. Because I remember my history class as well, and it was completely, almost completely Eurocentric, um, in undergrad. And it was incredibly problematic and it, I didn’t even understand or begin to unpack just how problematic it was until I started trying to design that same class for myself as I was teaching it to a different, in a different program. But it wasn’t until then that I realized, just like, started unpacking, like, really just how problematic it was. Um, so could you share a little bit more about how you view costume history and how you teach it in school?
E: Yes, um, I am deeply interested in why people wear the clothing that they wear, um, what’s happening around them, what is, what- because I think we are driven by environmental impact. We are driven by, um, what we choose to do during our day or during our night. And so I think, um, how we are housed, where we dwell. And so there’s so many other exciting factors. And I think looking at it more in a perspective of where people are living, how they are living, um, why they are living that way will help us understand why people are clothed in the way that they are. And what resources do they have access to, and how are they using those resources. And so, in looking, yeah when you look through kind of a what I would say a traditional, um, costume history course, um, from 20, 30 years ago- We were looking very- Thank you for saying Eurocentric. I was saying it wrong earlier. Um, we were looking at a very Eurocentric and we were seeing, um, a predominately white majority perspective on clothing and on dress. And so there’s no representation outside of that. And so I have a hard time showing a cast ideas around clothing and starting that dialogue with them about what they would be wearing as their characters, because I really want to start with them and say, how do you- you know, you’re gonna spend more time with this character than I ever will. How, how, let’s talk about how your character would dress. Let’s talk about what their, what their wardrobe would feel like if they have a wardrobe. And so I have trouble showing them research and images where they are not represented. And so it’s possible and there’s much more work out there. The internet has opened up so many resources and access to images, um, that have been traditionally withheld from textbooks. And so I’m very excited by the work that’s being done. There are a lot of people doing an enormous amount of labor right now to get, get us all access to images that represent a full spectrum of people and not just, um, a kind of a Eurocentric vision.
J: I don’t know, I’ve been thinking a lot about how, um, and particularly I- So we’re filming this and, like, the verdict of, the George Floyd verdict just came down. And it’s, there’s something about how we’re all complicit in a system that when we, if we don’t change or say anything about it, we’re all complicit in it. And that’s something I also really wanted to talk about today and, like, have this conversation with you about. Um because we men- as we mentioned at the beginning of today that you know, um, that we par- we have participated in wage inequity. I have definitely underpaid interns in my life, um, and in my career. And it’s something that I did because I was told that that was the way it was and, uh, honestly didn’t know any better to say any different or do any different or have the tools in my toolbox to try and change what that was. Um, but, it’s also about reflecting and recognizing, right, that when we don’t do anything about it we are complicit in perpetuating systemic oppression. Um. What are, I guess my question is, like, what are the things that you’ve been doing to help change, um, how you view or do things now?
E: Uh it started with me stop bragging about my workload from years’ past. That was the very first step I, I knew I needed to take. I needed to be honest about my role in creating, um, or contributing to a system of health, safety, labor, um, exhaustion. Where things were not equitable. And so I, I used to brag about having done, designed 25 shows in one year. I no longer brag about that. I talk about what it actually was and why I needed to do 25 shows that year. And that I broke even. And actually at tax time because I was not fully aware of the difference between a 1099 and a W-2 income that I, um, I was heavily penalized at tax time. And it almost ru- um, it almost sank my entire career. And so that’s the thing, I couldn’t afford to work 25 shows in one year. But also my health, my safety, the labor inequities from show to show- Um, it’s oftentimes as a costume professional I will show up and present my designs to the team and other, other team members, other designers in that room have labor that’s been secured for them by the hiring company. And so the set designer will show their, um, renderings and they’ll also, they’ll hand them over to a technical director. And the lighting designer will have an electrician, all this kind of stuff. And I would get a, “Good luck with that! We look forward to seeing what you come up with.” And so I was doing the design and the labor. And I was being paid less. And I believed that it was, you know, if my name’s attached to it that this is my reputation. I am my own marketing department. I have to give my 110%, um, because people will know me by my work and, you know, I’m building my portfolio and I’m building my career. And then, you know, 10 years in I’m still doing that? I’m still trying to prove myself for the same pay? Uh, and so, I, I had, that had to stop, I had to stop. I had to start saying no and I had to start saying where’s my labor, where’s my shop? Um, oftentimes I found myself in the dressing room working on costumes because there wasn’t a costume shop. It was inappropriate for me to be in that space in that way. Um, I’m trying to build a trust and respect with the performers and now I’m in their space working. Um and so I just needed to recognize, um, that it wasn’t, there wasn’t equity, you know. And then I needed to stop participating in it. And it’s not easy. Um, we have been conditioned to smile and say thank you, you know. A lot of companies wanna remind us that we’re just lucky to have a job. Um, but it’s, that’s, that’s how it’s gone on for this long. We are seeing wages posted right now that are the same as the wages that were too low 20 years ago. So everything else has been allowed to inflate, but why haven’t we been allowed to have our wages inflate alongside?
J: I think that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for everything.
E: Thank you.
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J: Thank you Elizabeth for joining us today. Elizabeth will be joining us to talk more in another episode about appropriation versus appreciation in costume design, further down the line. Now I’d like to welcome Dede Ayite. Dede is a dear mentor and a Tony-nominated set and costume designer from Ghana. I’d also like to welcome Clint Ramos. Clint is a Tony award-winning set and costume designer from the Philippines. And Clint and I most recently co-taught a costume history class together at UCSC. I have worked together with Dede and Clint on a few shows, usually directed by Robert O’Hara, Booty Candy and Bella: An American Tall Tale at Playwrights’ Horizons, and Marie Antoinette at Steppenwolf. But most importantly, Clint and Dede have been on the forefront of a lot of social justice work, both through social media and through the shows that they work on, most notably the recent Broadway production of Slave Play.
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J: So welcome, Dede and Clint.
J: I wanna hear from both of you, what does decolonization mean to you? Clint?
C: Oh wow, I go first.
C: Um, I, I, you know, I think, so I just want to acknowledge that decolonization means a lot of things for a lot of people, right. And so I think that’s, that’s number one. Um, and also that, you know, I am in the United States’ territory. I’m actually Zooming in from the un-ceded lands of the Mohicans, you know, and so I wanna honor, um, those people and the generations of elders and, um, and, uh, that native people who, who own this land. Also I want to acknowledge that where I am right now, after there was stolen land there was stolen people. And so I want to acknowledge the generations of enslaved people who built and continue to build this country. Um for me, uh, decolonization means that we are conscious. The first step for me is that we, that, is a consciousness of colonization, right, and that we understand what that means for each one of us personally. Um, I can only speak about my own lived experience. I live in this country right now, so decolonization means settler colonization. You know I’m, I’m doing settler colonization. Um and all the effects of that on culture, on society, and on where I’m, where we work, you know, which is art. But I also carry with me a long history of colonization, being from the Philippines and being an immigrant, you know, being, having been colonized by Spain for 500 years and then sold to the Americans, another period of colonization. Um so I carry that with me and so to me that really means, you know, uh, it means a lot of things. Decolonization means that I need to tap back into sort of my ancestral roots. Um, it also means that I unlearn, um, not burn down but unlearn the thing, the oppressor’s techniques, um, and the way I was taught, uh, in the way I practice art. Um, you know, I’m, I’m gonna focus on art and particularly theatre design, you know, where we practice right now because that’s sort of all of our experiences converge. But it really means to me that the first step for me is about consciousness. And what, you know, what colonization actually means to, to you on a personal, personal level.
D: Wow, that’s so well said. I mean, similar to Clint, um, I’m from Ghana, born and raised. I’ve lived in the US, though, half my life. And, and so for me, colonization effects me and means so many things to me. However for today I’d like to think that with what we’ll be discussing, colonize- decolonization for me is the departure and dismantling from the white standard. So whether it’s in Ghana, whether it’s in the US, there’s this notion, um, that the white standard is the ideal. And it’s a departure from that. It’s an unlearning of that. It’s an understanding that the idea of beauty, our approach to art, our approach to storytelling is much greater and wider than what we’ve been taught, right. And that’s even in Ghana. When you’re, when I, growing up in Ghana the idea of beauty is through the lens of European sort of standard or ideal. And so for me it’s a departure from that. It’s a conscious unlearning of, um, of the stereotypes that are associated to color, to textures, to patterns. It’s, it’s, it’s trying to break free from all those, um, colonized ideas that have been placed upon us.
J: Yeah. I mean what’s really great and actually, like, the one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to bring the two of you together in the same space, um, and both of you know this but I’m also from Singapore, right, which is also a colonized country. And the shift of moving from Singapore to the United States. And actually I think in that move I, I went from someone who came from a great amount of privilege to someone who then didn’t have as much privilege anymore. And I, there was also so much of that that I learned in moving to America that I realized I saw more clearly in Singapore after I left. Um, and I think that maybe I, what was your experience, what were your experiences with that too?
C: Yeah. I, I, I always say this, you know. When I came to, the moment I migrated to the States, when I started to breathe the first gasp of air and, like, kind of put my foot down in the soil of this country, I became brown. Um, and, uh, you know I think a lot of that is, um, uh, taken for granted, right, that you know, uh, when you- I also want to sort of just, uh, depart a little from that question to acknowledge that, you know, we are recording on the day after Derek Chauvin was found guilty. Um, uh, but also the taking of another African-American life, a very young life, happened concurrently by the police. And so one of the things that I wanted, going back to sort of like what it was moving to this country was that I think what we take for granted is that once, whether you’re born in this country or whether you’ve been in this country for, you know, for- or your family has been here for a long time, part of being in this country is signing up into that system of oppression, right. And that is a spectrum, right, uh depending on where you lie on there, right. And, and I don’t think we acknowledge that enough. I don’t think that we actually, you know, part of the fallacy or the myth is that you are coming to a land of opportunity. You are coming to sort of a land of plenty, uh, but nobody talks about the price that you pay, you know, the price that that costs. So I, I think to me it, uh, my focus when I first came here was to assimilate, right. And being from a very colonized culture, uh, a colonized country, I was used to that, you know. Um, that was sort of second nature. Uh, uh, uh, you know, it was funny because after the Philippine genocide, uh, of 19, of 1898 where America killed, you know, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Actually the number is around 3 million but no, no records could be found because they were burned by the Americans, the census, uh, were burned by the Americans. But uh, uh, part of what President, then-President McKinley said was, “Oh we’re not colonizing the Philippines. We are benevolently assimilating them.” Right and so there, so to me the, the, the concept of assimilating or being assimilated into a culture was sort of, it’s almost epigenetic. It’s part of my trauma, right. And so I just, I, I, I, I flipped that switch once I came to the US. It took me a long time, a couple of years, to actually start, you know, for me to realize what I, everything that I was learning and everything that I was experiencing was not sitting with me, right. And, and, and, um, and it was because it was going against the very sort of, um, ancestral lineage that I had, right, the, my very person, you know. And so, um, so to me that, it’s, it’s about that, right. Like it’s, it’s, what, what it was like, it was immediately centering whiteness. And not only whiteness, but like American whiteness, uh, when I came to this country. And that’s something that’s unspoken. The moment you walk into that airport, you know, you’re basically signing onto that.
J: Yeah, I remember. I mean it’s even in my accent now, right? Because I, I normally don’t have an American accent. And that was one of the first things that changed the minute I came to America. I remember very, very clearly. And it was also like the combination of that and being made fun of in school for pronouncing certain words differently. But then it was just like this desire to assimilate so that people wouldn’t know that you weren’t from America. Um that was very much ingrained in like how I wanted to behave when I got there that first week.
D: Yeah. Well ‘cause it’s like the, the idea of the other is a negative thing, right. So as close as you can get to the idea of whiteness or, which, which and whiteness, you know, or these European ideals and what have you are, are determined or portrayed to be sort of the first order of humanity. You know, it’s like this is the standard. This is, this is the, the genesis of the human race. And so you need to get as close as possible to, to this thing, which is whiteness. And when you migrate or you move, because of the way people react towards you, or because of the way society, the society is built up, you have to, you have to fit in. Because you’re called out. Whether it’s in your skin color, whether it’s in the way you speak. Whether it’s in the, the way you learn, right, education and access to, um, education. Everything is, is in relation or against that backdrop of whiteness. And if you’re not as close to it as possible, you feel inferior. So for me I know moving here I, I didn’t think, I, I remember, I remember, um, before I moved, a lot of people asked me, “Oh, do you think you, your accent’s gonna change? Uh, do you think you’re gonna have culture shock?” And I told them, “No, I don’t think so.” I’ve traveled before. Um, I went to good schools and I didn’t think I would have a problem. However, once I moved I found myself reacting or overcompensating because of the way people were reacting towards me, because of their assumptions about me from meeting me, from, and that’s just even before I opened my mouth to talk. Because I was darker than they were used to or, or they hadn’t met anyone like me, or claimed not to have met anyone like me, their reaction toward me then caused me to overcompensate, to prove to them that I was enough, right. But it’s proving to them I’m enough under the, the rules or the lens of, and the backdrop of, of whiteness. I’m just as good as this ideal or this standard of education, this standard of beauty, what have you.
J: So how do we begin to decolonize theatre and costume design? Oh! (laughs)
D: Rip it all open!
J: Oh my goodness.
C: That is the, that is a hard question you know. Uh, but it’s also not, actually, you know, um. I believe, um, ok, so here’s the thing. I believe in cognitive behavior therapy. I also believe that whiteness is an addiction, right. And so I feel like and, and if, I think both of you know that I’ve, you know, I’ve, I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I’ve been sober for over 20 years now. And I actually really believe that I think a lot of those principles and the way, sort of breaking free of an addiction can apply to the way we actually look at theatre. Um, and I say this because I feel like I think a lot of, um, uh, a lot of us try to think our way through it. Where you know what I mean? Where, where, I think, uh, um, and I’m gonna speak for, I’m, I’m gonna speak in the I, you know. I was too caught up in thinking about what the sources are, how we can do this and what, what is the source of this so that I can actually start dismantling, untangling the knot from the source of the knot, right. And while that is actually really important, like, all of, you know, what we’re talking about- and Johanna, the way we taught that class- I actually think that we can meet, uh, meet the, meet the goal from both ends, right. And so I, I do feel like for me, a lot of what we can do as practitioners is disrupt the behavior right now, right. And, and to me, that means, um, that means, uh, it, you know, like goes through the way we practice, right, how we look at aesthetics. How we, how we talk about beauty. How we talk about um, um, uh, what is important, into the very, into how, what we, what we put importance- uh, into the very programming that we sign up to, right. So, so to me that, that means that I, uh, Clint, a) need to pick the shows that I feel like are, uh, can bend its narrative to a decolonized narrative, you know? And two, like really investigate every single practice, like, every little practice that we’re doing in that, you know, in- through the process of designing, right? And so I, I really feel like a lot of this is behavior, is cognitive behavior. Like, let’s change the behavior. You know while we’re worrying about what the source is, because the source is, like, really factual. It’s there. It’s history. Let’s actually change the behavior right now. Let’s not get too caught up in why we, we should change it. We know why. Let’s not, you know, any sort of, like, analysis actually paralyzes us from doing the action, right. So to me it’s like, let’s do it this way, let’s do it this way, let’s do it this way, and let’s stop doing this, this, and this. And at least for me, that’s sort of the beginning, you know, that’s the beginning of things. Because I feel like if we, if we wait for a movement to happen, if we want a, like a defined thing, or if we expect some larger entity to actually save us, it’s not gonna happen. You know, we are our own salvation. The, the, the idea that the American theatre is gonna one day wake up and, like, lead us into salvation? I’m, I’m sorry, that’s never gonna happen. We, individually, you know, or, or some group is gonna save us or some, like, sort of, like, philosophy, some great kind of like movement is gonna save us. That’s not gonna do it, you know. We as practitioners actually have to do the change itself, you know.
D: I’m curious because you know, you would think as, as artists that we would push, um, against getting stagnant, right, and why don’t we? I guess that’s the question. As I’m listening to you talk, I’m wondering why, why haven’t we questioned things for so long? Cause as an artist, as artists, that is, that is a part of our makeup, right? That’s why we do what we do. I’d like to think that, um, at least for me, my, my passion for what I do is because I want to reflect life.
D: I want to reflect some part of life, right. And so for whatever reason, why do we then tend to box ourselves in? Why do we then tend to reflect only a small part of life? Why can’t we break that open? And I do agree with you, Clint, in the, in the sense that’s it’s about, um, consciously tackling every single step and, and making conscious changes at every step. So it is, uh, the shows you’re doing. I think it is looking at, uh, um, your sources, right. It’s, for me, my, my, the genesis or the starting of when, when I’m researching a garment isn’t, uh, isn’t just based in America. It’s not just based in Europe. It’s taking it further back. It’s an understanding that those people and the garments that they wear, or wore, actually dates much further back. So it’s looking at how those garments came to be from the continent. Because the continent is where everything started from, at least that’s what I believe. And so it’s, it’s saying you know what, you stopped at a certain point. That’s not enough. You need to actually go much further back to understand where this garment is coming from, right. And then with that too, it is, it is questioning and thinking about, um, our aesthetics and what we think of as good art. What we consider to be, what we consider to be, um, aesthetically pleasing. So then the idea of black, black being negative, black being evil, black being, um, having a, a negative connotation, it’s breaking that apart and saying what if we turn it on its head. And that also comes with education in art schools. It comes with education from middle school, from, you know, primary school. From kindergarten. And dismantling the idea of, like, certain colors having certain connotations or stereotypes attached to them. It really truly is, like, at every step, questioning every single thing in order to reflect the life that we live. That the life we live is not so small. It is much larger and bigger than, than, in actuality.
J: Dede, you just said something at the beginning, going back to the beginning of what you said though, which to me, um, I always find, the question of why do artists remain stagnant? And I think that particularly in America, like, that has to go back to capitalism, right. Which is a very white, uh, it’s a version of white systemic oppression, right, capitalism. Because you don’t have a safety net, because you can’t always make art, you have to make money, you have to then pick jobs that are not just jobs that you want to do, but also are jobs that you can survive doing. Because you don’t have a safety net, like, you need to have, you need to make money at some point, right. And that, to me, is where that kind of always goes back to.
D: That is true. Yeah.
J: Um, but I love what you said about school. Because that’s actually really important and I think something that I really want to talk about as well, right. Is like how do we break down, to me like a lot of this, how we break down these behaviors is, is broken down in how we learn and how we train, um, both like, like you said, from kindergarten- and I teach, um, kindergarten art now and it’s really, really fun. Um, but I remem- I remember something that, like, uh, a film teacher actually said to us once. That like the colors in film mean what you ascribe them to be, like, or like the, the colors mean what you as a designer want them to mean. And then you make that meaning through your work, right. And that, it doesn’t actually have to be, like, red doesn’t always have to be love or sex or passion, right. It can be, like, whatever feeling or meaning or, or whatever you ascribe to them. Um and I can only hope that more of that makes into art education all over the world, and especially in America.
C: Dede’s proposal, right, that we’re, that, in looking at other lived experiences, in looking at, uh, how other, uh, cultures particularly and other people actually, um, compose aesthetics, compose values around aesthetics, is so important, right. It’s, it’s so, it’s revelatory because it’s, then you’ll really realize that you, what you, you know, in, in a, that you’ve been learning things in a vacuum. And, and, and the way Johanna and I taught, uh, history, although, it was a very, uh, you know, we taught in a quarter, not in a semester. It was very condensed. What we tried to do was actually sort of really, you know, um, create a survey, uh, a global survey of aesthetics. Um, uh, and had uh, the students. We had 70 students!
J: Too many students.
C: Had the students, too many students. But had the students actually be exposed to aesthetics that they may not have been. And through that, through that research of figuring out what the items of clothing were, or the items that were donned on by particular, uh, members of that society that hopefully, through an understanding of how they arranged symbols, um, that they may not even just like realize, you know, what, what another, uh, concept of beauty is or another concept of aesthetics are, you know, but it actually realizes- to me the most important thing is an awareness that there’s other things out there, you know. And, and we should begin there. We should really, that’s sort of the beginning of a curiosity, right, a curiosity. I, I wanna tie this back to this idea. Because I think part of where we are in, in the American theatre is that we’ve actually just assumed that the audience is only capable of receiving a small amount of thing, right. So most often you hear notes from producers or from directors who have a producorial ear or eye, saying, giving you notes like the audience is never gonna like that. Or the audience is never gonna be able to appreciate that. Or I don’t know that if our audience can handle that, right. But no one actually has actually, actually asked, like, what can your audience handle? Like that’s the first question. And b, who is teaching them what to like? And I feel like that is our responsibility as, uh, as you know, as purveyors of aesthetics in the American theatre. That actually is our responsibility. And that the only way to do that is present them with something new and something odd, you know, um, something that’s not perhaps within the realm of their conception, right. Because I think that unless we educate them about what they should be liking next, then we will be in stasis, we will be stagnant, you know, um.
D: But Clint, you know, that’s- but here’s the thing though. So part of the issue with that, though, is some producers, not all, but a lot of producers are also just concerned about producing specific work for specific audiences. They don’t actually care about break- like about expanding their audience or creating more access to the shows. And that’s the, that’s why they’re like give us what we know, give us what we want, give us the same old shows because our people like this. They’re not actually concerned with everyone else. They want to keep that sort of elite society or elite, um, culture or elite, you know, community. They want to keep it whole. They want to keep it intact. I don’t know that there are a lot of producers actually interested in the, um, creating a lot more access and opportunity for others to come and partake.
C: Oh, you’re absolutely right, 100%. Because they’re worried about the bottom line, right? They’re worried, it goes back to capitalism.
D: Yeah, and that is a real thing.
C: But, like, I-
D: I mean, it is real.
C: It is a real thing, but like I’m gonna say that even within that limited audience, I think you will be surprised. Because nobody’s actually really tested the waters. Nobody has asked the, the sort of like, hey, what do you- Ok, so I’m just gonna say, from my own experiences, right. Like let’s just say, you know, uh, like, like my short career on Broadway, right? Like I know, for instance, that we were very nervous about how we were gonna do, um, Once On This Island and how we were gonna quote developing aesthetics, developing world aesthetics in there, right. And finding sort of like, finding um, finding a profound beauty in, in that, right. In the sort of like, the juxtaposition. And this is when I say acknowledge colonization in order to decolonize. Because it’s not about erasing colonization. Like the shit that happened, happened! (laughs) White people-
J: It’s still happening.
C: It’s still happening! White people said we are better so we will conquer your land, take all of the resources. Because we are the ones allowed. We should be having that because we are of a higher race, right. So unless we acknowledge that history, then we’re not going to get anywhere. Anyway, so I, I digress. But what surprised us was that people who we thought were actually not going to get it, got it. It was the first thing they noticed, and it was the last thing they thought about when they walked out of those theatres. And I say that because it was, it was both an education for us as artists, as creators, you know that, you know, um, and for the producers who, who, you know, gave the sort of trust to the artists to say hey, yes, let’s roll the dice on this and see what happens. Unless we kind of take the, take chances, then we’re not gonna, you know, we’re not gonna find out. We’re not gonna move the needle forward. And I’m gonna say, I’m gonna say an example that was the opposite of that, when I did Six Degrees Of Separation. You know a, a play that had in its center, uh, a Black man, and Black man who did bad things, right? And so, for me, what was important in that revival- we’d not seen that revival in 20 years- what was important to me was that we acknowledge that all the bad deeds that happened to this Black queer man did not happen in a vacuum. It just, he just didn’t one day say, “I’m gonna be a bad person”. You know, he was a product of the society he lived in, right. He coveted something across the tracks. He saw something that, uh, he could aspire to. And his way into that was perhaps what was flawed, but he was not flawed himself, right. And also acknowledging that when that play premiered on Broadway, 20, 20, 20 or 25 years, uh, of, of, of Black culture already happened. Hip hop, like, elevated itself, you know what I mean. Like it’s just, it’s, all of these things needed to be accommodated in that revival. So when I designed that show, I wanted to put the Black man in the center of it. I wanted to understand what was it that made him covet the, you know, what was, what, what those white people had. But unfortunately the playwright was en- ensconced in so much white supremacy that he couldn’t see it. He could not see it. He could not see that, he said this play is not about that Black man. This is about the white woman. And this is verbatim what he told me. And on one morning continued to berate me and tell me that what, how I was thinking about this play was wrong. So how are you gonna move the needle when you have playwrights who think like that? That’s a, you know what I mean, like, it’s always like a crap shoot. But for us, our responsibility is to push that needle. Do we get flack for it? Sure. You’ll get a morning where you’ll get screamed at, you know, and you can choose to take an action after that, or you can just keep on going. Oh, it just got awkward. (laughs) It just got awkward.
J: I just got-
D: No, it didn’t!
C: I’m just done. I’m just done! It’s just, you know, I’m also not, you know, I’m not gonna burn Broadway down. I don’t believe in that.
C: Right, I don’t believe in BIPOC martyrs. None of us should be martyring ourselves, right. We should be claiming our space in it. And we should be changing it. For me, and this is just me, I’m not going to tell anybody what to do with their life, right, but for me I reserve the right to critique it from within.
C: I reserve that right. I’m not gonna throw years of work, years of, of, of work, not only working for the man, but working against the man, away. It’s, it’s, it’s, uh, I just, uh, I, I, I don’t believe in the other way. I, I don’t believe in martyrdom. Because you know those, the, the, the harm just changes hands. A person just literally went back behind the curtain this week and said, “I’m gonna take a pause, but I’m still behind the curtain.” At what cost?
D: (sings) Money, money, money!
C: Money, money, money! (laughs)
D: (sings) Money! (snaps fingers)
J: Well and capitalism is a white institution, so.
J: That was definitely real talk. Um, going back to my first question though, Clint, um, to talk just a little bit about how we continue to teach this moving forward. Because I think that I know that you teach at Fordham. I know Dede teaches as well. And I did, have done a little bit of teaching. I think that’s actually something that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s actually what this podcast is about, right, it’s all about how do we move forward, how do we teach this to the younger generations. And how do we talk about this in schools, especially because I think that’s where we do a lot of teaching is in universities right now, the three of us. And so I just do want to take a little moment to, like, actually talk about that class that we taught, Clint. I actually thought it was really interesting because we, I, I don’t know about the two of you. Actually, I know what Clint did, but I don’t know about Dede, about your costume history class in school and what you did. Because what we did was a very Eurocentric, like, we start at, like, Greek and Roman, and then we worked our way all the way through, Eurocentrically, through Europe. Like history of Europe, all the way up until 2000s, yeah? It was pretty much the same, yeah. And so that was something that was really important for, like, Clint and I to tackle when we were teaching that class, when we planned it. Because we wanted to make sure that we weren’t- a) we weren’t doing it Eurocentrically and b) I think the other part that I really struggle with is that a lot of internal bias comes into play. So a lot of people in that class do a lot of personal research, and they um, they research their research and then turn it in for homework. Um and what Clint and I really wanted to do was to kind of turn that on its head and actually give our students a picture to research. And that way we could actually control a little bit, you know, the kind of research that they were doing. Because we could tell them, like, hey here’s 30 images of, you know, Victorian period but, like, it’s from a range of class and race and everything between in that time period, and sexuality, right, all of that’s mixed in there. And that way we could actually have our students look at things that were hopefully beyond, you know, if I tell you to go research like a Victorian dress you’re, nine times out of 10 someone’s gonna pull up like a rich, white, upper-class woman from, like, wherever, England, right. And we wanted to be able to turn that on its head a little bit, um, which is something that I found really helpful in class and actually, I think, got some really great feedback and some research assignments for our students. So I was wondering, Dede, if you have any other similar experiences in teaching, or how you teach.
D: So the class I teach at Harvard is less of a costume history class. It’s an introduction to costume design through the, under the guise of transformative design. I also teach the introduction to scenography class, which is an holistic approach to design. So it’s a bit different from a costume history class, however with the classes I’m teaching, I’m hoping to question the approach in which we approach design, in which we, um, take a script and analyze it. And so what’s important for me is to give, or give space to the students to question their approach, to question what, um, great art is, and to allow them to develop their own sensibilities, um, of how to approach design, right. So I’m hoping to give them tools that they can then take and depart from the norm, under my guidance. So it’s, it’s, it’s urging them to consider sources outside of what they would normally consider. It’s urging them to think about, um, the characters in a much deeper way, to go past the mask or initial idea of a character to think about past histories, um, to consider race, class, um, society, uh, when they’re looking at the characters.
J: Is there anything either of you would like to promote? Things that you’re working on that you’d like to share? Yes, no, maybe? Clint?
C: I, it’s very hard, you know, it’s very hard to actually promote anything right now. I don’t, I just don’t know, you know, people are coming back. Theatre is coming back and all that kind of stuff. And I think part of what we all have been doing in the last year- Although we’ve been doing a lot of this work through our art, um, prior to this year, prior to the past year- Um, I think part of what’s missing for me is the step that we actually- So we’ve both been doing all of the social justice work and teaching, right, like this past year, like really heavily into it, right. Organizing, all that kind of stuff. And then we’re about to jump back into work. And so for me what’s really missing is the, is the sort of period where we actually kind of, like, figure out that step between jumping straight back to work and, most of the time, to the oppressor’s house, you know, and from our social justice work and, and trying to do the social justice work through art, through our art. And I, I’m missing that step. So I’m, I’m actually a little apprehensive about all of that. I mean, there are some great projects down the line, you know, I mean, I’m, you know, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna, uh, there are things that we can talk about. There’s The Outsiders. I’m gonna promote The Outsiders and the film that I finished before the murder of George Floyd, RESPECT, is gonna come out. So please look out for that. But I’m gonna say that I am really apprehensive, uh, about what’s, you know, what the next steps are. Because I’m, a) I don’t wanna, uh, I don’t wanna disregard all the work we did this past year, but I also want to find our way back in, in a, from a place of joy, from a place of art-making. And how we acknowledge all of that work, all of the things that actually, the good things that came out of this year, and how we incorporate that through art-making. I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet. I think people are just jumping back into it, you know. And I don’t know what happens to the work before that.
D: But I- something Clint did say was important about, um, coming back and, and experiencing joy through our art. That is something I’m looking forward to. And I’m, I’m, especially working on Merry Wives, um, at The Public for this, uh, Shakespeare in the Park, uh, with Saheem Ali. I’m, I’m definitely looking forward to, you know, working through joy to create art.
J: Oh that’s fun.
D: Yeah, that’ll be good.
Shayna: I have a question, actually. Uh, this is producer Shayna jumping in. Um, thinking about this from a professional experience, as opposed to an educational environment, um, when we do get back to work, what in particular in terms of going beyond theoretical discussion, so in terms of actions, would you like to see? Especially from white artists and white institutions to, uh, put their money where their mouth is and show that the work is being undertaken to acknowledge the effects of colonization and start the process of decolonization. I, um, I’m just wondering what tangible changes or results you’re maybe hoping to see in our rehearsal spaces when we all can actually gather as a group and, and get back into rehearsing and producing shows?
D: That question. Because I’m like, there’s so much information out there. So if people really want to do the work, they would do it. Like I feel like Black people, BIPOC people have been saying this is what we need. We need access, we need opportunities. We need, you know, payment. We need, you know, healthier practices. And they’ve been shouting it and screaming it. And the question still comes up, well, what can we do? And I, look, it’s been, it’s been laid out. It’s said, give, give space, right. It’s said, um, give more access, give more opportunities. Um, it’s ack- it’s acknowledge your privilege. And so how do we, I guess my question is so how do we then move away form the, from the space where it’s just performative? It’s saying, oh tell me what I can do, tell me what I can do, tell me what I can do, as opposed to taking ownership of what you think you can actually do, the individual, and going out there and actually doing the thing, right. And, and you know what, I’m, whoever I am, I can go out there and saying I’m going to call an artistic director today and tell that artistic director to hire this Black person. Where is that action? I don’t need to tell you to do that. You’re an artist, you’re a human being. You can take ownership of that and take those steps.
C: Yeah. I cannot agree more with Dede. There’s a 33-page document that lays this out. So people just need to read that, and people just need to start going there. And so, and, and more than We See American, White American Theatre, a lot of groups have been talking about what these, what they, what they, what they need and what they, what they need to just actually literally just stay in, you know, stay alive in this industry. So maybe start there, right. Maybe a consciousness of there. Like I think it’s also about, like, you know asking, like, ok, when is- As opposed to what can we do, it’s like, when can we start doing? Because it’s already laid out. It’s already, it’s really laid out. And I’m just gonna say, once those bodies are in the rehearsal rooms, in those theatres, be conscious of how you’re protecting those bodies. Be conscious of how you’re setting them up for success, you know. There’s like, there’s so many, you know, the information is out there. That’s, you know, that’s, that’s uh, that’s important. And the last thing that I’m gonna say is talk to my BIPOC, you know, kindred, to my, my, my siblings, you know. It’s like for me what’s very important is that we keep the eye on the prize, right. I think what happens, right, when, when, when the, when the, when, when the oppressor’s house opens is we start panicking. And we start looking at, you know, uh, uh, we start signing up again for that culture of scarcity. Remember how we protected ourselves during this last year, and let’s keep that in our hearts and in our minds, you know. So I, I, you know I think one of the things that I really want to be conscious of is the un, um, unintended lateral harm that we do to each other, right. So let’s give all of that energy to white supremacy. You know, let’s, let’s do that. Let’s, let’s literally look at, look at that, and, and not forget that that’s, that’s the target right there.
J: Great. Thank you, both of you, for have, for, for taking the time and the emotional labor to do this with us today.
C: (sings) Emotional labor!
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J: I’d like to thank Dede and Clint again for their time and emotional labor, and to remind everyone that to do nothing is to be complicit in a system that oppresses the global majority and upholds white supremacy. The resources mentioned on this episode are available in our episode notes and on our website. We also have a list of additional books to read on our affiliate bookshop.org page. Please go take a look at some of the reading. You’ll learn a lot, and if you purchase books through our page, you’ll also financially support both your local bookstores and this podcast. We highly encourage everyone to take this episode as a starting off point to learn more about what it means to decolonize theatrical design, theatre, and especially our minds. Dirty Laundry is committed to compensating our guests for their time and emotional labor. To support us, please visit our website and donate. You can also find us on Instagram and Facebook @dirtylaundry.thepodcast, or Twitter @dirtylaundry_pc, or via email at [email protected] Dirty Laundry: Unpacking The Costume Closet is produced by Shayna O’Neill and Johanna Pan, with music by Jay Ong, and audio engineering by Justin Sabe.
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