Mannequins and First Drafts

There’s something about mannequins that remind me about a writer’s first/second/final drafts. Maybe it’s the skeletal frame, or the glassy eyes, but I’ve always been attracted to the idea of an idea taking a form, a body, a costume and then resembling a whole idea.

When I was a child my mother was keen on bringing us to every small town museum she could find, The Lobster Museum in Kittery Point, Maine, the Birch Tree Forest Museum in the White Mountains, Vermont – and some of them were quite surreal in their use of mannequins and taxidermy. The museum with the most sinister theatrical memory was a rather musty one in Fremont, Nebraska: “The American Indian in the American West” . It had a grouping of “American Indians” (this was before the term “Native Americans” or the discovery that Indians had tribes or nations of their own), anyway, the Indians looked very much like suburban neighbors who were dressed up in bad fitting leather outfits and they were lumped around a glassy eyed buffalo that they had apparently just killed (it looked like a moth eaten buffalo sofa with bent arrows coming out of it).  There was the square jawed Indian Chief with the Eagle feather headress, and the sullen young Indian brother, and the Indian Mom with a fake looking papoose on her back who was cleaning up the buffalo blood on the floor.  The caption read something to the effect of: “…here the Indian family are dressing one of the last of the buffalo, which were soon to be extinct on the plains of Nebraska….”

This exhibit really confused me. The Indians really didn’t look like Indians, they looked like white people with smudged dirt make up on, and the buffalo didn’t look dead, except for the glassy eye part, and I didn’t realize that buffalo were already extinct. I thought we saw one at Six Flags Over Texas the summer before. I didn’t quite get the distinction that they would soon be, perhaps, extinct on the plains of Nebraska. And I didn’t understand why they would be dressing a dead buffalo – (if he was dead, why would he need clothes on him?) – but when you’re nine years old and you know everything, you don’t ask questions.

So anyway, this really does bring me back to mannequins. The idea that they represent an idea – especially in theatre – as characters take shape in the time/place/class that they inhabit. I went to see the new costume exhibit at LACMA at the newly opened Resnick Exhibit this past weekend. The daring of these clothes really sparked my imagination – the curious nature of the each generation’s idea of the ideal form. It was inspiring. Especially the feathers in the hair.

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