“I am working within constraints,” says Sister Aloysius early in Doubt: A Parable. She’s referring to a shortage of experienced nuns at St. Nicholas School, but the line also reminds me of the physical constraints Stephanie Mumford (Sister Aloysius) and I are working within. Shanley specifies the nuns are of The Sisters of Charity, an order that wears black bonnets with their habits, as Elizabeth Seton did when she founded the order in 1809. This order taught Shanley when he attended Catholic school.
Our director, Stevie Zimmerman, brought up the bonnets early in the rehearsal process as an obstacle in staging the show because they make it so hard for the audience to see the actors’ faces. Hats are always a challenge for lighting designers too. Stevie is smart to keep that in mind, I thought, but the bonnets won’t be an issue for me. All I have to do is wear it.
Just one rehearsal proved how wrong I was. If it was too far forward or too far back on my head, the entire scene became about adjusting or trying not to adjust, my bonnet. If I tied the strings too tight, the brim created an echo chamber, making my words sound louder in my ears than anyone else’s. Then there was the matter of cheating out (a theatre term that refers to angling one’s body slightly toward the audience while looking at a scene partner, rather than facing them directly), which was trickier than usual with a brim framing my face. To top it off, I had to forget about all those things and, you know, act.
I found the confines of the bonnet frustrating until I realized they’re a wonderful physicalization of the obstacles in the play. My character, Sister James, so badly wants to do the right thing – to please Sister Aloysius, to trust Father Flynn, to nurture and protect the students – but she can never see the full picture. She’s pulled from one side of the conflict to the other as she gets new information about the play’s central incident. Sometimes, she makes the choice to turn away from the truth, and in those moments, it’s useful to have a bonnet to hide behind. The best costumes help the actors, as well as the audience, to believe in the reality of the play, so maybe working within constraints isn’t too bad after all.
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