MWS sat down with legendary Costume Designer Jane Greenwood for a fascinating conversation about the art of designing, her career and her life. This is part one of our wonderful conversation.
You just designed a revival of Little Foxes on Broadway starring Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney. You’ve designed Little Foxes before, and you’ve designed multiple productions of other plays as well. For example, three productions of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. What is it like returning to the same material with entirely different elements? It sounds a bit like being reincarnated!
It’s very interesting. You always start at the beginning with a blank page. The actors really take the direction to go with it, and there’s how the director envisions it and what they want these people to look like…
Is it an effort to forget what you did before?
Oh no. No no, it’s really very interesting how you can go on to the next.
Does the process begin with the director?
Yes, that’s what I like. I like to hear what the director has to say about the piece, what they think about the people, where they see it, what period. Sometimes it’s clear what period it should be, sometimes the director wants to take it somewhere surprising. Particularly if you’re doing Shakespeare, that seems to move around a lot. But I always like to start off by hearing what the director has to say, what direction he or she will go with the actors.
This production was fascinating because the two actresses reverse the roles, so I asked if we were designing for the characters or the actresses. And Dan Sullivan said we were designing for the characters. So I could concentrate on emphasizing who the characters were through clothes. For example Regina is very interested in how she looks, she’s a go getter, she wants to move on, she’s ambitious and she’s 40. The time is ticking away. So she has a need to look great. Birdy, on the other hand, has had a sort of lost life. She’s turned into an alcoholic, clothes are not her main function, so to speak. She’s a little lost in a way. So her clothes don’t signal the same thing for her.
Did you make adaptations for the two actresses different interpretations?
At a certain point, it became streamlined and the only differences were for their physical body types. It was a very interesting process.
You mentioned Shakespeare, which you’ve done often at Shakespeare in The Park; what’s the difference between working with a large cast with lots of costumes, as in Shakespeare, and something like Vita and Virgina, which was a two person show Off-Broadway starring Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins, with no costume changes? They each had just one costume for the whole show.
Haha, yes, thank goodness, only one!! Actually, sometimes that can be harder, because it’s going to be looked at for the whole evening, and so everybody has a lot to say about it and there are many opinions about how they can make that journey for the whole evening.
So it has to express a lot.
Yes. If an actor has a lot of changes and one is a bit off, they get into the other one quickly and you forget all about it. There can be a certain saving grace in that!
It gets absorbed into the world of the play a bit more easily?
You hail from Liverpool originally, and you went to Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. What brought you to design? Is it something you wanted to do from a young age?
Not really. I always loved clothes; I loved making clothes. I loved everything about it. When I was a little girl I had a doll’s hospital and I had all of them in nightgowns and pajamas that I got my grandmother to make when I was really little. I was evacuated with her [during World War II] and we were in Wales. I had all these dolls with me, and my uncle who we were staying with was a carpenter. He had bits of wood that I would take, and they would be the hospital beds.
It strikes me as the start of your making worlds through clothes.
Haha, yes, I suspect that’s true.
And also, not to be too psychological, but it’s fascinating that you were evacuated and perhaps on some level it created a feeling of comfort and safety to make those little worlds.
Oh there’s that I’m sure. And also we were hearing so much about soldiers in hospitals. That developed and I kept sewing. I went to Liverpool Art School first and I had a good teacher who said I should interview at Central because my work was very theatrical, and I didn’t really know what he meant. But I went and was accepted. And I was really lucky. Norah Waugh was teaching there. She wrote the first really extraordinary costume books on corsets and crinolines, and the cut of men’s clothes, the cut of women’s clothes. She was really a wonderful teacher and historian. She got us all interested in looking at corsets and shapes and she would say all the time, if the shape isn’t right, the dress won’t look right. It doesn’t matter what it’s made of, if the underpinnings aren’t right the dress will never look right.
It’s true. And Desmond Heeley was teaching in the evenings and Pegaret Anthony, who was another wonderful historian, took us to the Victoria and Albert Museum to the print room, where we’d put a piece of glass over the prints and we could trace on tracing paper. This is before any of the mechanicals and technology that are used today. I always think that when you draw something you’ll remember it. Printing something out won’t stick with you the way drawing does.
Your career began in NY. Was that purposeful or the winds of fate?
It was the winds of fate. I got a job at Stratford Ontario in Canada and made good friends there with the cutter Ivan Alderman, and when we came back to NY to get on the boat to return to England, he introduced me to Ray Differ, who was an Englishman who had started his business here. Ray asked me if I’d like to work with him here, so in ’62 I came to NY and started working as a draper and I met my husband, Ben Edwards, soon after. Ben said “You trained as a designer and you should be designing. So you’d better take the union exam and get on with designing.“
So I took the union exam and passed. Ben was also a producer, and he and Lewis Allen were producing “Ballad of the Sad Café,” which Edward Albee had adapted from Carson McCullers’ book, and he said you better do the costumes for this. I said that I’d never been south and he said, well, you’ll look at the research. That was my first Broadway play. That was 1963. Then came “Hamlet” with Richard Burton. John Gielgud was good friends with my husband and we all went off to Jamaica and stayed at Noel Coward’s house and talked about how we were going to do the play of Hamlet. It was great. We had a wonderful time and we planned to do this modern version of “Hamlet.” That was a challenge.
How closely did you work with Richard Burton?
As closely as you and I are sitting right now. We were all there together and we rehearsed in Toronto because he was having trouble with his divorce. He and Elizabeth were wanting to get married and they couldn’t come into America, so we were up there and they subsequently got married. They flew to Quebec. That was all going on at the time when we were doing the show.
When you begin your career on such a high note is seems like the heavens just opened for you and welcomed you in.
Yes, I’ve never stopped. There have been periods when I haven’t done so many shows, but invariably there have been one or two shows a year.
This year you’re nominated for your 21st Tony award, and you were honored with a lifetime achievement award.
Yes, but that’s not the same thing as winning! I have to brace myself every year. Haha. Though it’s great that I’ve been constantly included with my peers. The first nominations are by our peers and that means a great deal.
Most designers would dream of having a fraction of your career, though. It must take a huge amount of effort to keep showing up and I’m just curious how you’ve managed to stay so on course with it.
Well, I love to do it. It does challenge you. If I wasn’t working I might stay here and float in my pajamas all day. Hahaha. It’s a challenge to stay on top of things.
I’m interested in how you create a character together with the actor. Are there moments when you bring a costume idea that opens up a new realm for the actor?
One hopes so. You hope that the costume gives them the wings to fly.
And what about making concessions you don’t want to make?
Well you just have to get over it and move on. If it doesn’t work you just move on. Sometimes an actor puts something on that you’re excited about and it’s just a dead balloon.
Does it typically take a lot of experimenting?
It’s always different. Sometimes it’s very quick and sometimes it takes a long time. No two projects are alike.
Stay tuned for part two of our talk with the inspiring Jane Greenwood!