Designers also have a rather specific design concept process to contend with. The conventional process usually starts off with bigger questions of theme, representation, and motivation. Yet revisiting these questions, or considering new ones in light of where a design is headed—particularly in relationship to how the design choices may be affecting the story being told—seldom occurs. For example, is our design actually creating something new? Do our characters copy, distort, or amalgamate history and imagery? How may the design be viewed by a member of the community we drew inspiration from? Productions and producing companies like Cornerstone Theatre, which have intensive, almost immersive, community-based theatremaking models, have already recognized and embraced a restructuring of the more conventional production design process.
To begin rethinking and reworking our Western design processes, we need to look at our conventional training models: university and college programs. Pedagogically, these programs would benefit from and help break the cycle of oppressive design and production practices by including training in how to dialogue with community, how to analyze and synthesize inspiration and research with a more accurate and authentic understanding, and how to develop relationships with the source community that creates channels of input through all aspects of production.
This may sound obvious, but execution—what is considered the final phase of design—can also find a few pitfalls for poor appropriation. Quite frequently, producing entities, particularly costumers and costume shops, are under resource constraints such as time, skill, and available materials, which can lead to a lack of ability to accommodate truest representation of costume. However, knowing the time and place when it is necessary for fullest representation of character is tantamount. This includes the proper traditions of dressing and wearing a garment, like learning how saris are wrapped and worn and conveying it to wardrobe and the performer(s), or knowing the impact and meaning of kimono style and obi dressing that are being used for a specific production.
With execution, appropriation can also sometimes boil down to an oversight of sensitivity in material choice. A rather infamous example is the “innovative” technique of utilizing a mop head as a base for which to build afro-centric hairstyles. It wasn’t the design that crossed the line; rather, it was the execution and its contention as being a “creative solution” to a challenge that did it.
Our Lesson from The Three Sisters
Ultimately, all of these observations bring the Three Sisters to mind—and I am not referring to the human spirits that populate Anton Chekhov’s play. I’m referring to our plant sisters of bean, corn, and squash. These three lovely plants, which are grown in clusters together in Native American agricultural practice, demonstrate a deep and strong lesson in reciprocity.
Reciprocity is traditionally defined as “mutual dependence, action, or influence.” The second definition includes the exchange of privilege. The Three Sisters can be planted alone and still grow; in fact, the neat tidy rows of many a garden and farm field reflect this. But the botanical reciprocity shared by bean, corn, and squash being planted together in clustered mounds or groupings is irrefutable. The mutual benefits in soil fertilization and nitrogen processing, physical strength and support, pest control, and even the meticulous use of rainwater by the roots that grow at various layers below the earth are clear examples of this reciprocity. (To really experience the poetic lesson of the Three Sisters, read Robin Walls Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.)
As storytellers, collaborators, and human beings, we are called to learn from this reciprocity: to see and act as stewards of our inspirational knowledge and relationships; to learn, acknowledge, and hear our fellow people’s histories, cultures, beliefs and religions; to sensitively and clearly represent our characters’ identities, stories, and their people; to be aware of our privilege as designers and creators; to check our creations for sensitivity, accuracy, and, if creating something “new,” for originality; to seek out feedback and responses for our design’s impact on our audience, characters, and inspirational source communities; and to continue that sensitivity through execution.
Together, we must have the strength, grace, and fortitude to enter perceived difficult conversations; the humility to ask questions genuinely; and the wisdom to discern and speak out when a production concept, design, or idea begins to veer towards disrupting or dishonoring our inspirational communities. This is our role as stewards and storytellers. Inspiration is everywhere, and it is up to us to use it powerfully, to use it wisely.