Sunday, January 15, 2012

Notes from the Director: Visual Motifs

As Clara and I began looking at picture books and fairy-tale collections for images and ideas that might inspire our design aesthetic, I was struck by the way these stories rely on motifs. Perhaps a function of their roots in oral tradition, where repetition could anchor the story telling, so many of these stories have textual and—in the case of illustrated editions—visual motifs.
In Paul O. Zelinsky’s Caldecott-winning retelling of Rapunzel, Zelinsky repeats both the visual motif of the Rapunzel plant in the blue of Rapunzel’s dress and the flowers that adorn her jewelry, as well as the textual motif of tightening clothing as a signifier of pregnancy. Of Rapunzel’s mother, he writes, “one spring, the wife felt her dress growing tight around her waist,” a problem Rapunzel later confesses to her witch-mother.

Sometimes these motifs even suggest personality markers. In Amy Erlich’s retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans, Susan Jeffers’ illustrations subtly indicate the trustworthiness of various characters that the heroine, Elise, encounters. When her evil stepmother tries to spoil her beauty by sending toads to her bath to cover her in slime and filth, Elise’s goodness and innocence turn the flowers into poppies. These poppies appear again and again: first, on the skirt of a strange woman in the woods—who helps Elise find her lost brothers—and then again, decorating the reigns of the horse the prince—her future husband—rides. These cues suggest that the strangers Elise encounters are, much like herself, good, innocent, and trustworthy.

As I looked at these images, I became interested in the ways our costumes could chart similar personality traits and motifs—both from the play and beyond. I began to think about Helena’s countless references to stars (“Twere all one that I should love a bright, particular star”), LaFeu’s description of the “boys of ice,” and other such images as visual motifs that might mark the costumes of each character. The Countess with a spray of winter flowers and snowflake-lace sleeves; Helena with a tangled yarn apron, catching at stars; the King dripping with ice until his health is restored and he blossoms into spring branches. Over the coming months, Clara and I will be building costumes, props, and set pieces with visual motifs that resonate with the images of the play and the world of the fairy-tale.

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