Wearing our stories
The thrill of being someone else for a day!
If your children and their friends went trick-or-treating, or got all dressed up on October 31st, you may be wondering… is there a story here? The origins of Halloween date back hundreds of years – to an ancient Celtic harvest festival – but nowadays the main focus is on costumes (and candy!).
For those of us experiencing a drop in temperatures with autumn making itself known (zero degrees in London yesterday morning), you may be happy to swap your winter coat for a much more exciting outfit for a night; and the chance to celebrate something in October may take your mind off the shorter and colder days (okay, enough about me and my issues with the weather).
Did your children dress up? Many children are eagerly waiting for Halloween as it’s the perfect day to wear a costume, but you don’t have to wait until late October to become your favorite superhero, animal o creepy creature – if you have a costume, wear it!
You may remember my post on play and storytelling – they go hand in hand. Children at play will use their imagination to build stories, create characters and, above all, have fun. Why not let some of that fun spill onto the page?
This week’s exercise involves your child dressing up and having some fun, then writing a story where the main character is, well, whatever they are dressed as. This can be an interesting exercise that children can also do with a friend – pair up, play, and then write about it. They can each write their own story or they can build it together, one sentence each, or one paragraph each. It could also just be dialogue between the two characters. Whatever they choose, remind them that a good story also needs a setting (time and place), a problem and a solution.
If we think about movies, TV shows or plays, we refer to the actors’ clothes as costumes. While not all children may share the thrill of wearing a costume, they can still appreciate what it is used for. Older children may take this opportunity to describe a character they see in a film, for example. They can talk about the costume in detail, explain what it looks like, why they think the character chose to wear this, and how that places him or her in the narrative. The actors on stage are telling a story with their words, actions, and also their clothes.
British costume designer Helen Lovett-Johnson explains that her role is “to give the performers a tool to work with so that they can tell a story”, so she spends a considerable amount of time and energy thinking about what message she is trying to pass on to the audience. The audience should understand who the person on stage is by looking at their clothes. What kind of job do they have? What is their position in society? Are they wearing a uniform, hand-me-downs, designer clothes? Are those clothes supposed to last a long time? Who looks after them? We should be able to tell a lot about a character and what kind of person they are by looking at what they are wearing.
I hope your children can join in one of these exercises. You do not actually need to go out and buy a costume.
When I was growing up, Halloween was certainly not a “thing” in my hometown, and I remember owning one single costume when I was in primary school. Still, we would use scarves and other props we could find at home, and anything could become what we wanted it to be. I would use old cardboard boxes to create the set of a TV show where I was the host, I would use a small stepladder to come down to the “stage” and pretty much anything from a pencil to a glue stick was deemed a decent microphone. Hurray!
It’s easy to get sucked into purchasing brand new outfits, toys and other items, but the truth is our children thrive on their own imagination and do not need that many things to turn into the character they want to be. A character does not have to be someone they already know from a book or a TV show; they can dress up as a nurse, a firefighter, a dog, an adult.
Getting the chance to be someone else for an hour can be entertaining, why not get a story out of it too?
Many thanks to Helen Lovett-Johnson for her insight! Helen is a costume designer and costume supervisor, working on large-scale international productions of ballet, opera and plays. She has recently worked on Broadway on Stephen Daldry’s Olivier Award-winning The Inheritance, at the National Theatre on Follies (Olivier Award for Best Costume), for the English National Ballet on Giselle (Sky Arts Award) and at the Royal Albert Hall on Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. She is currently working with Her Majesty The Queen of Denmark on a new production of The Snow Queen in Copenhagen.