It has taken many forms, both benevolent and oppressive, and has gone by many names since its inception centuries or even millennia ago: mentorship, indentured servitude, apprenticeship (or, if you read your Dickens, the shortened form, “‘prenticeship”). But if you thought the practice went out with Johnny Tremain, think again. It’s alive and well and very often the best path to confidence and staying power in the sometimes boggy field of theatrical design. This most intimate form of training is a link with tradition and an opportunity to create in opposition to it.
Jane Greenwood, whose prolific career in costume design for stage and film began with formal training in England, has a complete perspective on mentorship. She was offered invaluable instruction and guidance, first under the exacting eye of Nora Waugh at London’s Central School, and then through the stewardship of the legendary Ray Diffen, whom she met in New York in the early ’60s. Now she is returning the favor through her position on the faculty of the design department at the Yale School of Drama, where she performs a kind of mentorship en masse and, more personally, in her relationship with the assistants she hires for the various projects she always has in the works.
From mentee to mentor
On a warm November morning, I manage to catch up with Greenwood between the opening of Abe Lincoln in Illinois at Lincoln Center in New York and dress rehearsal for Sight Unseen at New Haven, Conn.’s Long Wharf Theatre. She comes immediately to the point. “Well, I always say that designers are not made; they’re born. You can put people on the right track, but you can’t give them what it takes to make them an extraordinary designer. It’s there, and you see it. You can’t help but know when there’s a talent that’s going to blossom.
“I’ve seen it happen several times over the years with my students: Rita Ryack and Judianna Makovsky, Candice Donnelly, Donna Zakowska. I remember when William Ivey Long, who had just finished at Yale when I started teaching there, brought me his portfolio to look at. I said, ‘William, just go out and do it.'”
That list of names, so familiar to those in the discipline, testifies to Greenwood’s longtime commitment to cultivating young designing talent. She herself benefitted from such attention when she was just out of the blocks.
“Mentoring is something that is very important–being with a wonderful person for you to sort of grow with. Ray Diffen was instrumental in focusing my attention, when I came to America from England in 1962,” she remembers. Diffen invited her to join him in his New York costume shop, where she worked for a year and a half as a draper.
As a fledgling designer she also worked at Stratford, Ontario under Tanya Moiseiwitsch, the woman who designed costumes, sets–even the festival stage. Greenwood found her to be “an extraordinary inspiration for any designer. And I think when you’re young, you do need somebody you can feed off of.
“I worry sometimes today,” she continues, “when I ask the students why they’ve come into this profession and whom they most admire, they very often don’t have that answer. Perhaps it’s that ideas have changed. In some ways, I suppose, it’s really healthy that they have so much confidence in themselves–that ‘they’re the ones.'”
The trajectory of Greenwood’s career had been more incremental: training, then working in a shop, draping, designing on the side and then, finally, designing full-time. “I brought a lot of that English tradition with me of making period clothes correctly.” In fact, period accuracy was a relatively new consideration in the theatrical world, and it was as yet unheard of in Hollywood. “At the Central School, I had worked with Nora Waugh on a lot of corsets. So I had a fascination for the correctness of the undergarments. It was uppermost in my mind at the time. I remember the production of Tartuffe during the Guthrie’s opening season everybody was very surprised when I said we would have to do the correct 17th-century corsets.”
But how did underthings lead to other things? Greenwood’s transition from assistant/pupil/mentee to designer is in fact a path very little traveled. “Well, I met Ben [Edwards], my husband, who said, ‘You’d better get back to designing, you’d better take the union exam.’ And I did. He was designing sets for Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and I designed the costumes. That was my very fortunate entry into the Broadway scene.”
Then came work with John Gielgud,” she explains matter-of-factly, “and next was the Richard Burton Hamlet, then work with Ingrid Bergman. Jose Quintero I had a very long relationship with Jose, whom I adore. Of course, we did a lot of Tennessee Williams together.”
To be in that kind of continual demand, a designer has to be gifted, of course, but also extraordinarily reliable. And for that, a designer needs a crack assistant.
David Charles was Greenwood’s assistant for nearly two decades before sharing credit with her on the current Broadway show She Loves Me, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Two of her current assistants, Lisa Tomczeszyn and Azan Kung, who met Greenwood at Yale, have both had the opportunity to study with their mentor in the classroom and in the field.
Tomczeszyn is articulate about what makes Greenwood a great designer: “She has an amazingly strong collaborative spirit. By letting you do what you do best, she allows you to bring more to the project.
Teaching how to see
“Jane has absolutely formed how I look at clothes as a costume designer,” Tomczeszyn goes on. “She has taught me not only how to do research, but how to look at my research. Going to a museum with Jane is an incredible experience. I came into the profession, as I think most people do, with a sensibility and a sense of palette, but Jane has truly affected how I look at clothes and the idea of character.”
Kung is similarly enthusiastic about her relationship with Greenwood. “Working with her has allowed me to continue my education–not only in design but as an artist working in this field. Of course, she’s incredibly knowledgeable, but the more important thing is she treats people everyone so well.”
By virtue of her position as Greenwood’s teaching assistant last year and her work with the designer this season, Tomczeszyn has crystallized her enthusiasm: “Jane talks to the other people in the collaborative process–actors, directors, everybody–and she uses their sensibilities to enlarge her work.” That’s Jane Greenwood’s diploma.