A Life in the Theatre: Jane Greenwood

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Jane Greenwood Meet 15-time Tony Award nominee Jane Greenwood, who has designed costumes for characters in more than 100 productions.
Jane Greenwood
Jane Greenwood

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"I love the camaraderie of the theatre," Jane Greenwood says. "I also love the fact that when you work on a play or an opera or a ballet, you are always learning something new. I think it keeps one very much alive."

Greenwood has been enjoying that camaraderie, and that sense of being alive, as a costume designer on Broadway for 45 years. She has designed more than 100 productions, from Edward Albee's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1963 — her first Broadway play — to Hamlet with Richard Burton in 1964 to Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig in 1993 to Stephen Sondheim's Passion in 1994 to this year's revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
photo by Joan Marcus

She has also garnered an incredible 15 Tony nominations — including ones for Our Town in 1989, The Sisters Rosensweig in 1993, The Heiress in 1995, A Delicate Balance in 1996 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2005. ("Always a bridesmaid, never a bride," she says with a laugh.) Greenwood was born in Liverpool, England, in 1934. "I was evacuated when I was five to Wales with my grandmother" at the start of World War II, she says. "She was an excellent seamstress and made many dolls' clothes, at my insistence — and design. When I went back to Liverpool I was very fortunate to be there when all the theatres were getting back to normal. There were wonderful tours of theatre, dance, the international ballet company, with people like Margot Fonteyn, John Gielgud, Irene Worth — and my aunt took me all the time." Early on, she had thought she wanted to be an actress — "a lot of people start off there, because it's the obvious thing you see." And it was a while before she decided it was clothes that would make her career. She went to the Liverpool Art School, studying watercolor, anatomy and life drawing.

"I had a good teacher there who thought that my work was very theatrical and that I should go for an interview at the Central School of Arts and Crafts — it's now Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. They accepted me, and I spent three years with top-notch people in the business. And I realized it was costumes that fascinated me!"

From Central, she went straight to the Oxford Playhouse, running the costume shop, designing and making clothes. "They produced another play every three weeks," she recalls.

It was there that she met the designer Tanya Moiseyevich, "who invited me in 1960 to go to Stratford, Ontario, and the Shakespeare Festival. I worked in the costume shop, draping, being involved with the clothes."

She kept returning to Stratford through New York and began thinking about moving to the States — and then, in 1962, she was offered a job with Ray Diffen, who ran a Manhattan costume shop. In New York, she met and married the scenic designer and producer Ben Edwards — and when he was designing and producing The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, he asked her if she would like to design the costumes.

The play is set in the South, "and I said I had never been to the South. He said just do the research — look at the photographs. And I've continued to do that all my life."

When she is preparing to design costumes, she says, "I talk with the director about his ideas and his concept. Then I go off and look into the place, the time, the period, the atmosphere of it all. I go to libraries, go to museums, go to my own bookshelves, go online. And I have very good assistants who are infinitely better at going online than I am. I amass a tremendous amount of material about the subject. And I do that pretty rigorously before I really start to design."

In addition, she feels very strongly that "it is very important to really know the play, and if the playwright is alive, to talk about who these people are. That's what you're creating — the people, who they are, what they would wear. Whether it's a fantasy, an enormous musical or a small kitchen-sink play, each time you're coming at it with the hope that you're going to enrich the piece visually for the audience."

Is there any show that was particularly difficult for her to design? "There's a point at which everything is hard," she says. "And then a light goes on, and it's easy."

And after all these years, is there something she hasn't done on Broadway that she would still like to do? She laughs. "I've always wanted to do a great, big, glitzy musical!"

Greenwood's work from creation to fruition on <i>Heartbreak House</i>.
Greenwood's work from creation to fruition on Heartbreak House. Photo by Joan Marcus
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