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On Costuming and Authenticity

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The only picture I've found from the show itself: a bit grainy, but gives an impression...The only picture I've found from the show itself: a bit grainy, but gives an impression...

One of the highlights for me at October's ladies' barbershop convention in Llandudno was the premiere of two arrangements commissioned by the Cottontown Chorus for the Saturday night show. The Meatloaf ballad 'Two Out of Three Ain't Bad' and a medley of a ridiculous number of other Meatloaf songs (35 minutes of original music crunched down to about 8 mins of a cappella!) were at the heart of their set, and provided the theme around which they built the rest.

This was a highlight for all the obvious reasons. Not just that it's exciting to hear one's creation come to life for the first time (a treat I also had over the weekend from Silver Lining), but that it's exciting to hear extended musical structures sung so well. And they had really gone to town on the staging, even building a mock Harley Davison out of an old chopper bike and bits of motorcycle.

Indeed, there were even times when I might have wished for the cheering from the audience to be a little quieter so I could hear more of the singing. But I understood why they were making such a racket; the whole thing was ostentatiously and virtuosically bonkers.

An interesting snippet of conversation overheard later was someone asking who had designed the costumes. And the answer was: the singers themselves. They had all been given the general remit of 'Rock, 1960s-1980s', and told to get on with it. The chorus had vetted all the choices, and removed a couple of duplications (there are only so many Sid Viciouses you need in any one chorus), but the choice and sourcing of costume was left to the individuals.

This resulted in a tableau that was simultaneously coherent and varied. As an audience member, you could grasp the overall theme in a glance, but your eye was constantly being drawn in to details and imaginative touches. I can see why you would be impressed at a designer who managed to produce that level of attention to detail over that many costumes - but of course if everyone had only one costume to devise, they had plenty time and attention to do a really good job.

So there's a lesson there, to begin with, about crowd-sourcing. One of the advantages in having a large ensemble is that there are lots of brains available to do both logistical/admin and creative work. We can spend a lot of time trying to meld all these disparate people into a single performing unit, but it sometimes comes at the expense of the individual contributions people can make.

But the other thing you couldn't help but notice was how happy and proud each singer was in their costume. They had all thrown themselves into the project whole-heartedly. It was a game of dress-up and pretend, and they committed their imaginations to it, both in costuming, and in the performance.

And this is what I mean by authenticity in the title. Nothing to do with historical authenticity, or genre authenticity (though there had clearly been a goodly amount of research effort invested), but personal ownership of and identification with the musical characterisation the set needed.

You sometimes see people onstage as characters where you can see the inverted commas. They show you both the role they are supposed to be playing and the distance between that role and who they are themselves. And this is true not just of character acts, but also when people are performing as 'straight' performers. You can see people holding themselves back from their role as performers, and this comes over as a more or less awkward lack of believability.

When this happens, the first instinct is often to blame the performer for lack of stage presence (and it is blame - we hold them responsible for making us feel awkward too). But it is worth stopping to question sometimes who it is that is asking them to do something they can't or won't commit their full selves to. Why don't they trust us to step fully into character?

We saw none of these problems with Cottontown's rock personas. There was a relish, a joie de vivre, a commitment to the performance that invited the audience to suspend disbelief. The costumes were wonderful, but the same costumes on people who were not as committed would not have had the audience cheering so rowdily.

But I still wonder if the costumes were a factor in that they were a medium through which each individual could think themselves into the role in a manner of their own choice. The overall concept may have been decided in a top-down process - indeed, I had more than one person tell me before they learned the charts that they didn't particularly care for Meatloaf, but they were happy enough to put this personal preference to the side pro tem.

But having room to make key decisions about how you, yourself, were going to inhabit the concept gives you the space to meet it on your terms. The persona of the song isn't wholly imposed on the performer from without; rather the individual can make such accommodations as they need to find an intersection between their own identity and that of the song that they themselves find believable.

One of the constant conundrums of ensemble activity is exactly this question of how to balance up the needs of the individual and that of the group - something I have written about both in my choral conducting book and in my essay for the Cambridge Companion to Choral Music. Cottontown's costuming strategy was a nice object lesson in a successful squaring of this circle.

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