A Life in the Theatre: William Ivey Long

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: William Ivey Long
 
Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft
William Ivey Long
William Ivey Long

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When William Ivey Long was a child, he lived in a theatre dressing room. So it seems only natural that he has devoted his life to the theatre — and to dressing its finest stars in the prize-winning costumes he has created for more than 25 years.

From Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking in Chicago to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers, from Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming in Cabaret to Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray, and from Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz to that fabled yellow dress in Contact, the Playbill credits all read “costume design by William Ivey Long.” He has won four Tony Awards — for Nine in 1982, Crazy for You in 1992, The Producers in 2001 and Hairspray in 2003.

“Theatre was the family business, the family passion,” Long says, sitting in his townhouse in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. His father was a technical director and theatre teacher, his mother an actress and playwright.

“My dad's first theatre job was as technical director for the Raleigh Little Theatre, a community theatre in North Carolina. It was just after World War II and there was a housing shortage — there were no homes for all the newly married couples. So they moved into the stage left dressing room off of the outdoor amphitheatre. It was 20 feet by 20, with one door, two windows and a little bathroom. So from age zero to age three, I would step out the door and I’d be on the stage. It was my backyard.” His first theatre experience, he recalls, “was seeing my mother being yelled at and having her hair pulled and crying onstage. It was Death of a Salesman. I’m told I screamed and yelled, too.”

His father moved on to the University of North Carolina and its Carolina PlayMakers, and at ages four and five Long “would play in the costume shop and the scene shop, building little houses out of the scraps of wood and making costumes for my dog out of scraps of fabric.”

When it came time for higher education, however, at the College of William and Mary, his first choice was history, and then, in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, art history. “I wanted to write books,” he says, “I wanted to be a historian.”

But in the end, the lure of the theatre proved triumphant. “It was the way I grew up,” he says. “The theatre was what we talked about at home. The big front hall was where we built scenery. Costumes were made at the dining room table — the sewing machine was almost permanently up. As a teenager, before college, I had already worked as a technical director and a propmaster.” So he decided to go to Yale Drama School, where he studied set design for three years with “the great Ming Cho Lee. To this day, everything I do is judged by ‘what will Ming think?’”

The years at Yale changed his life, he says. “It was a golden, magical time. Robert Brustein was the dean. Robert Penn Warren was the playwright in residence. Meryl Streep was in my class. We all lived together in the same funny Victorian house. Sigourney Weaver was my roommate. Wendy Wasserstein was a year behind, Chris Durang and Albert Innaurato the year ahead, Paul Rudnick was an undergraduate.”

And then he came to New York and decided to switch to costume design. “If you’re a very lucky person, you start questioning everything,” he says. “School doesn’t make you satisfied — it makes you hungry. So I said to myself, ‘What don’t I know?’ And I apprenticed myself for three years to the great Anglo-American couturier Charles James, who lived and worked at the Chelsea Hotel. He was a living master. You always have to keep looking for who knows more than you do, and then try to get them to shine a little light on you.”

The three years passed, “and then my friends who had been in school with me started getting jobs directing, and they hired me,” first to do sets, and then for costume design. “And I fell totally in love with the psychological delights of helping people create a character, having a character come alive.”

He begins by studying the play, he says, and then meets with the director. “An approach is fleshed out. Sometimes I bring reference books to the first meeting, if I want to jump to the next step. But usually it’s the second meeting where I bring in my whole presentation, involving collages, color schemes and color theories. We start talking about the characters, who they are and their arc — from here to there. Usually the scenery has been designed, or at least started, and I know what my world is. My most vivid experience was the set designer Tony Walton’s Runyonland when we did the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. All that Technicolor majesty. I was horrified. He had used all the colors. I didn’t know what to do. It was probably the greatest design challenge I ever had.”

Long both lives and works in his 15-foot-wide 1864 town house, next door to the sculptor Louise Bourgeois — “it’s the house that Crazy for You bought and The Producers and Hairspray let me finish renovating,” he says. He maintains his North Carolina roots in Seaboard, just south of the Virginia border, where he traces his family history back to the 17th century — a Long first settled there in 1676 — and where he has a large farmhouse on 500 acres, raising peanuts and cotton.

Wasserstein, his friend since Yale, says that what makes Long special is “his sense of color and theatricality, combined with his loyalty. When I was having my baby, he was busy with two shows and yet he came to see me every day. He showed up every morning at Mount Sinai Hospital — and he redecorated the room.”

Long is 56 now, and he has never been busier — and he plans to keep on doing what he does best. Current and future assignments include the revival of Twentieth Century with Alec Baldwin at the Roundabout, Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs with Nathan Lane at Lincoln Center Theater — and then the movie version of The Producers with Lane and Broderick.

“It’s what I love doing,” he says. “I love to make theatre.”

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