Hey, you! Actor! Part II: Are you Stanley Kowalski?

June 21, 2011

I had such a good time last week annoying blogger "2AM" with my comments on actors who don't project that I thought I'd try to annoy 2AM again this week with Hey, you! Actor! Part II.

My rant this week ain't about hearing, it's about seeing actors' undershirts; specifically, seeing t-shirts under costumes. Here's the deal: unless you are playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, I don't want to see your t-shirt. If you're playing Stanley, it's OK because he's supposed to be wearing a t-shirt. But if you are playing, say, Prince Hamlet or Torvald Helmer (Nora's husband in Ibsen's A Doll House) in a period-accurate production, I don't want to see your t-shirt under your costume  because there WEREN'T ANY T-SHIRTS in the time periods during which Hamlet and A Doll House take place.

There is something in theater called verisimilitude or the appearance of truth and reality. Very broadly speaking, the thrust of theater (or at least drama vs. musical theater) in Western Civilization roughly since Shakespeare has been towards greater and greater realism made possible by the creation of indoor theaters, the development of sensitive artificial sources of illumination, the design of realistic scenery (especially the box set) and the Chekhovian break-through of psychological realism and subtext. I say thank God for all that or we never would have had Neil Simon.

Be that as it may, it's very easy to destroy verisimilitude with a glaring and unintended anachronism, and NOTHING destroys verisimilitude more quickly than seeing Hamlet remove his doublet for the fencing match only to reveal the outline of a 21st Century t-shirt under his linen. Ditto, Torvald Helmer when he removes his outer suit coat to slap Nora around.

But one need not go back to the 19th Century and earlier to commit the Sin of the T-Shirt. Until the post-World War II period, the t-shirt was used as an undergarment only by the military (ex-servicemen played a huge role in popularizing it). So it's equally jarring to see a man (or, yes, sometimes a woman) reveal a t-shirt under a dress shirt or blouse in a play by Noel Coward or Eugene O'Neill.

I've had this discussion before with actors, and they don't disagree with my theoretical thinking or my facts (indeed, they cannot) but they take issue with me on the practical grounds that actors sweat and t-shirts protect the costumes and reduce smells. Well, I hope actors sweat! I don't want them phoning in their performances, and I want them to speak loud enough for me to hear them!

I never have said that actors should not wear undershirts; what I say is that they should take care that audiences don't SEE them. Make sure that the outer layer is heavy enough to render the t-shirt invisible. Or they can wear period-appropriate, historically-accurate undergarments! Both of these solutions require the cooperation of the costume designer, of course. Indeed, the costume designers (and astute directors) can and should make certain this problem doesn't arise in the first place.

Another solution is to clean or wash the costumes frequently and skip the t-shirts. Indeed, many Actors Equity Association contracts require that so-called "skin parts" are laundered nightly, although smaller theaters and non-Equity troupes are not held to the same standard. You don't catch the T-Shirt Syndrome when you see a production at the Goodman Theatre or Chicago Shakespeare Theater or a touring Broadway show such as Wicked.

I know, I know: 2AM or someone is going to say "Jonathan, where is your willing suspension of disbelief? Where is your imagination?" Hey, I'm a theater critic; I don't have an imagination.

Bottom line: this is an easy thing to fix and it costs little or nothing to do it if costume designers include underwear as part of their concept for period productions. But if they don't, hey, you, actor! Have enough pride in your hard work to be aware of it yourself, and don't let a t-shirt give your characterization the lie.