Exploring the sights, minus the sounds, of wordless storytelling at the GRAM

Historically, silent films were an iconic experience because of their ability to deliver a story without audible dialogue or sound effects. As production technology evolved, audio effects allowed characters to talk, laugh, and sing as they told their story, usually accompanied by sound effects and a musical score.

Inspired by their latest featured exhibit, David Wiesner & The Art of Wordless Storytelling, the GRAM’s Storytelling Beyond Words event series brought together diverse community partners, to discuss how wordless storytelling occurs through different forms of creativity and self-expression. We were invited by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) to partner with the Opera Grand Rapids to showcase how seemingly disparate art forms share commonalities.

This exhibit lets each reader tell the story in their own voice. It puts readers in the position of collaborating in the storytelling process, asking them to use their imagination along with mine.”
– David Wiesner, Author and Artist

Meetings between the GRAM, Opera GR and Mosaic team members resulted in a combined effort to visually show the behind the scenes story of the opera through elements of hair, makeup and wardrobe, without audio. This endeavor also presented the opportunity to showcase the talents of our first-place high school winner of the 2019 Mosaic Mobile, Mariah Barrera. Mariah, a senior at City High Middle School, participated in the New York University Tisch School of the Arts summer program, studying wordless storytelling.

Mariah’s film documents the journey of Michigan-based opera performer, Diane Schoff, as she transforms from her everyday self to a glittering, high-spirited character on the opera stage. The final product, screened at the GRAM’s Storytelling Beyond Words event, features zero sound, only moving film, colorful scenes, and an opportunity for the audience to imagine the sound in their minds. From the elaborate costume to the colorful make-up and wigs, this film showcased what it takes to transform an actor in street clothes to an opera singer on-stage.

“After speaking to Mariah, costume, hair and makeup are all methods of wordless storytelling in opera, Using a silent documentary film to tell that story is where we started,” said Derk Baartman, Mosaic Film Experience vice president.

Before filming, Mariah researched opera as a method of storytelling and The Mikado, the specific opera show that she shot.

On the day of filming, Mosaic education lead Mallory Patterson and Mariah spent five hours with Diane Schoff, filming her arrival, hair, make-up, and costume, all transforming her into the character on stage for the dress rehearsal.

“It was really exciting for me to see the other side you don’t see during the production, and I had a lot of fun learning about the backstage process,” said Mariah. “You realize it’s more than just putting on beautiful clothing; it takes a whole team of people to design, make, and assemble just one actress’ costume.”

According to Opera Grand Rapids operations director Sarah Watson, a lot of decision making and problem-solving goes on behind the scenes for costume design. The setting of the story on stage, as well as cultural influence, alters the costume design and audience perception of the characters.

“With any production, we have 80-150 people putting it together from the staff to the artist team to stagehands and people onstage and orchestra,” said Sarah. “When it comes to costumes, all the journey backstage works to facilitate a story on stage.”

There are thousands of ways to tell a story, and Mariah learned you don’t always need tradition elements to produce an invoking film. She plans to continue telling her story through writing, directing, and creating films, maybe even some without sound.

“It strengthens my storytelling skills when I can’t use sound. I enjoy writing, but people can only understand so much of my story on paper. Visual storytelling allows for empathy,” said Mariah.

A special thank you to Opera Grand Rapids, the GRAM, Mariah, and our entire Mosaic Community team.