Costume designer Rachel Healy believes the classic arts—ballet, classical music, theater, literature, and the fine arts—are a reflection of the truth about ourselves. Through them we are able to better approach and connect to our own humanity.
“All people grapple with the big questions: Why are we here? Why are we connected?” she said in a phone interview on Nov. 25. The classics are vehicles that allow people to find those answers for themselves. “They allow us a place to go home to—inside.”
Healy is a freelance costume designer in Chicago, and she also teaches some of the core curriculum in the arts at Loyola University in Chicago.
In thinking about the importance of the classics, her thoughts turned to her students. Many of them not only lack a foundation in the classics, she said, but they lack knowledge of history.
“They have cobbled together an understanding of history from the Internet,” she said, but none of it comes from life experience: through storytelling or discussion. Few know the history of their grandparents’ era.
For many of her students, even going to the library is foreign. “They don’t have a vehicle to understand art and design,” she said.
It’s too soon to tell how Healy’s students will fare without an understanding of their culture’s history, but she does her best to inspire them. When students are introduced to a classic, which “inherently rejuvenates the human spirit, encourages conversation, relays foundations,” they begin to see themselves as contributing to this conversation.
They begin to consider why they are on the planet and what their own contribution to it might be.
Raised With the Classics
Unlike her students, Healy grew up with a love of art and the classics. At home it always seemed as though classical music was playing in the background, and her family visited art galleries and museums. They talked about how the art they saw related to current topics. Art was essential—part of the fabric of home life.
Her training as an artist began at home, too, first in the classical style of drawing. Her grandmother and mother encouraged her to draw and rely for inspiration on some of the great masters: da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt.
In “copying the fluid gesture [and] lines of these artists, I learned how to draw the human form. I did this, as most children do, in copy-work and from life,” she wrote in an email exchange.
She also was introduced to ballet at a young age. A conductor and his wife, a ballerina, moved to the small town of Evansville, Indiana, where Healy grew up. She studied dance with Jean Allenby, with the Stuttgart Ballet, and considers this training as a complement to her drawing.
“I drew in the same manner as I danced—with the freedom of gesture, and line as a form of expression … If you are to achieve the poses in classical dance, you must be able to picture it in your mind first and in doing so you can achieve, say, the arabesque line from your fingertips to the point of your toes. It is the same in drawing.”
The Classics as a Touchstone
Speaking more specifically about theater, Healy sees that the retelling of classic stories in a live theater setting reflects truths that we need and want to hear.
Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre (APT), known for its classic repertoire performed outdoors, is currently working on “King Lear,” a tragedy it hasn’t produced in 16 years. Healy is designing its costumes.
The story is of an aging king who, in giving up this throne, believes those who flatter him rather than those who are trustworthy. He assumes he will be able to keep some of his power without all of its responsibilities. He is wrong. He loses everything because of his unwise decision—even his sanity—and many good people suffer.
In reflecting on the suffering of the aged king, who clearly misgauges his impact on the world, Healy looks at her own life. What is she contributing to this world?
“Have I aided in getting a community to have the discussions about how we treat our elderly and how we care for one another at our later stages in life?” she asks herself.
She thinks of the aged and wonders if her life has honored her own parents: “I hope I have honored them by using my artistic talents for the greater good.”
APT is updating “King Lear” to modern times to make even clearer our connection to the story it tells. Healy suspects the play will hit home because, as she says, a great number “of our 40-somethings to 60-somethings are becoming caregivers for their elderly parents. Having entered this phase myself, I find I need support [community support] for a generation of human beings who wish to feel relevant, to have purpose in this phase of life, and who truly are afraid.”
“I sincerely hope I am not the only one looking forward to this classic tale being told. To sit among a group of people in the hills of Wisconsin and see if we can come to some cathartic understanding of ourselves at this moment in time,” she said.
Perhaps this retelling of a classic will allow viewers to reach a home within themselves.
In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics