Becoming Louisa May Alcott

A few posts back we were discussing fashion as it related to Eight Cousins, chapter 5. In my attempts to find out more, I posted on the Louisa May Alcott Society listserv to see if any of the scholars there could share some information. As a result, I met Frances Miriam Reed. She has portrayed Louisa for different library and school groups and thus, is intimately acquainted with how Louisa dressed.

I asked her about the dress she wears for her performances and she wrote:

Frances Miriam Reed as Louisa May Alcott

“Since I was not wearing corsets, the dress was not uncomfortable, but it is structured with boning. It is of brown silk, but the many petticoats – even one heavy petticoat – underneath it made the costume heavy but not unhappily so. I think I read somewhere that women’s clothes in the nineteenth century could weigh as much as forty pounds.

And it takes a long time to put on. for after the petticoat(s), there is the underskirt and the overskirt, the sash, the neckpiece, the blouse, the bodice, and then the vest of brown velvet with many tiny buttons.

The study of fashion and the psychology behind it is fascinating and how this ties in with LMA and who she was  – for me – points to the many conflicts that formed and dictated her life and her art.”

How does one become Louisa?

Being curious about how one becomes Louisa, I invited Dr. Reed to write about her experiences portraying Louisa, and other historically important women:

“Before I began work on my Louisa May Alcott show “Living Little Women,” I had developed a number of other performances, including one on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In that instance, I was not going to approximate with padding or otherwise 250 pounds of body. But it had become clear to me in my work with teaching English and studying literature that language is idiosyncratic and that the essence of the individual is in the language chosen by the individual. To attempt to convey the essence of an individual without using her own words misses the entire point of a re-creation. The essence of who you are as performer will necessarily color your portrayal, but by starting with the actual words of the individual to be portrayed, your coloration will be muted and hopefully blended in such a manner that will sharpen your portrayal.

Louisa in her own words

Fortunately, Louisa May Alcott left us many, many words that display her essence and that peer through the layers of Victorian sensibilities that engulfed her. Thus, I began the composing of my script by – naturally enough – by reading, reading, reading everything LMA wrote, most particularly her diaries and letters. And then I stitched together those statements that made the point in her life that I wanted to bring to life on the stage. I wrote in my own words the bridging statements that gave coherence to my presentation, but as much as possible, I let LMA speak for herself.

Researching and recreating the costume

Ideally, a traveling solo artist will want as little luggage as possible, but costume, above all, is so important to conveying the historical ambiance and geist of character and period that costume, as authentic as possible, had to be had. In that regard, my award winning designer, Sylvia Moss, then of UCLA Theatre Department, and I did a great deal of research, and I was fortunate in knowing someone who shared my passion for this approach. Using a photo of LMA , she created a beautiful and authentic dress that in itself was an important part of the show.

The chair that Dr. Reed uses

Simple props

In that connection, at least one piece of furniture from the period was important for me to have on stage. I did not want LMA to become hostage to the set, but I always traveled with a chair that said 1870s or thereabouts and that set the tone of the era.

Making good use of Louisa’s humor

Beyond drama, I used LMA humor, which is what will hold audience attention above all, and I used those incidents in her life that, from my point of view, most expressed who she was. For some time, my performance was missing something; I could feel it. But when I integrated the Boston Brahman accent, into her words and into the script, I found her voice, and my performance took on an inner life and came into its artistic merit. Such a discovery is part of the inner path that the artist must travel, but when it feels right, it is right. It works on stage, and performer and individual being portrayed connect with the audience in a wonderful synergy.”

My thanks to Dr. Reed for sharing her experiences. It was obvious to me through our correspondence how much joy she derides from portraying Louisa. Visit her website at www.miriamreed.com to find out how you can invite her to your library or school group.

4 Replies to “Becoming Louisa May Alcott”

  1. I can certainly see why some 19th century women rebelled against their clothes. Selecting and wearing clothes can still be a source of misery, but we have so much choice today, with most women wearing pants most of the time.

  2. This was fascinating! It does seem like Louisa’s actual practice was somewhat ambivalent about rejecting fashion. I wonder if there are any videos online of Ms. Reed doing this.

    1. I checked YouTube but didn’t see anything for Dr. Reed but I did see one for Jan Turnquist – I searched for Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott.

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