Ivey League

BY Marimar McNaughton

An audience with William Ivey Long is an exhiliarating albeit sometimes bumpy ride. Like clinging to the hem of Broadway royalty — on pins and needles — the most decorated theatrical costumer in modern times weaves a multi-layered stream-of-consciousness tapestry of artistic historic architectural and philosophical wisdoms and witticisms — designing no two conversations alike.

While wearing an understated uniform of khaki pants a white button-down long-sleeved shirt sensible shoes silk necktie and dark blazer he can’t disguise his passion or hide his four unprecedented Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards for costume design. “Not in the bathroom ” he cheers tongue-in-cheek. “They’re on the mantel.”

What’s next for the über-educated ultra-animated native Tar Heel cum Big Apple hipster? He has taken his gig on the road moving into the 12 000-square-foot Cameron Art Museum with a matchless exhibition of costumes from his 30-year career seaming sketches swatches playbills and film clips culled from 50-plus Broadway productions and Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas nightclub acts framing 90 color renderings and dressing 105 mannequins for a 24-week run that opened April 29 and closes Oct. 14.

The Cameron show “Between Taste and Travesty ” is so named after a 1983 review by New York Times critic John Simon of the off-Broadway play The Lady and the Clarinet in which Simon wrote “William Ivey Long’s costumes hover between taste and travesty.”

It was museum director Deborah Velders’ idea to invite the legendary Long to town. “It’s a big show and it’s an important show ” she adds. “We’re an innovative museum. Our mission is arts education. Part of that is devoted to historical and scholarly work and part of that is devoted to the art of our own time.”

Promoting visual and cultural literacy in the broadest possible context the Cameron Museum celebrates its fifth anniversary with the groundbreaking exhibition. “I’ve heard from colleagues and curators who say ‘We collect historical costumes but we don’t collect theatre.’ There are always boundaries to everything; but with the arts what’s great is that there aren’t too many boundaries there aren’t too many limits when it comes to talent and excellence ” Velders explains.

“What museums really do is they celebrate excellence in the arts ” she says. “I think William Ivey Long is quite a genius. Looking at his work we invited him because we thought ‘how extraordinary that he has achieved this in his career ’” Velders says.

Long remembers his first contact with Velders somewhat differently. “There was an article in January a year ago the New York Times Alex Witchel and someone saved it for her and said ‘Oh look a North Carolina person.’”

“What she offered at first was this gallery in the hallway. You can’t really get a dress form in there and I thought ‘Oops!’”

How Long was allowed to take over the entire museum is summed up in a phrase:
“He’s kind of a force of nature ” Velders says.

“My job is to imagine things ” Long says sketching a picture of tone-on-tone rooms black-on-white yellow-on-yellow red-on-red creating a figurative staging area for such iconic costumes as the provocative black lace body suit from Nine the famed yellow dress from Contact the Pearl Girls from The Producers Roxie dresses worn by Brooke Shields Ashlee Simpson and Robin Givens in Chicago and Christine Ebersole’s Little Edie Beale upside-down dress from Grey Gardens. Designing each tableau as if he were writing the book for his own musical – cast with his favorite costumes naming each after the actors who shaped the roles – the enormity of the exhibition starts to fall into place while the comparison to a vaudeville magician is irresistible. “Between Taste and Travesty” is just one more platter flung into the air spiraling into a controlled landing on the tip of a spinning rod with Long and his five-member team juggling the act balancing five Broadway productions his 37th season with The Lost Colony and the economic development of his family’s home town in Seaboard North Carolina.

It’s in his gene pool. Long’s father a production designer and playwright was the founder of the Theatre Department at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His mother a costume designer and actress. The couple met at the University of North Carolina’s PlayMaker’s Repertory Company and summered as cast and crew for The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island. Long was reared on Winthrop’s campus and literally grew up under the thumb of legendary costume designer Irene Smart Rains and under the wing of America’s first and today’s longest running outdoor drama written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green.

“I was brought to work because you know … I was an infant ” Long says. There he was put to bed in the fabric bins beneath the cutting table. “It was the manger if you will … I would do that for years and years afterward … you know you would just crawl under the table and go to sleep and I think I did it until I couldn’t get under the table. That’s how I remember it … and I used to play with the scraps ” he says adding “You know sewing machines are actually very reassuring to me still; careful where you put your kids to sleep!”

Long earned his first academic degree in history from William and Mary University before he began graduate studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. It was there that he met author Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) who urged him to apply to Yale.

“I credit all my education very highly. E equals mc squared with everything I’ve ever studied. I thank Ming Cho Lee my great teacher and Robert Brustein head of the school. There was a very big focus on ‘the play’s the thing.’ That may be why my two very best friends became playwrights Paul Rudnick and Wendy Wasserstein. Of course Christopher Durang was there Alfred Innaurato Ted Tally … they were all contemporaries right within that three-year window ” he says.

Despite his Ivy League education Long went jobless for 18 months. It was a time of decline in the American theatre when plays were the thing but so were epic films like Star Wars and the first Beta videos were trickling into the mainstream to compete for the attention of the erstwhile theatre-goer.

“I looked around for teachers because I had not been focusing on costume design ” he says. He hero-worshiped the late Charles James who at the height of his career designed clothes and furniture for Dominique de Menil that Houston Texas arbiter of grace and style. “I thought ‘Oh my goodness there is a master still living and working and breathing in New York City. I have to go and apprentice myself to him.’ And that’s what I did. It took me six months of stalking him and offering my services.”

Out of what he calls his breakdown period Long made satin dolls during this hungry time. He includes three in the exhibit. “I made the shapes and the bodies so they were self consciously dolls to be played with but I made them as people. They were sort of my artless interpretation of a character in time. The three I’ve chosen relate to each other they’re all from paintings. One is a Marie Antoinette from L.E. Vigee Lebrun one’s Marie de’ Medici from the Rubens ‘Coronation Portrait ’ and one is The Infanta from Velazquez … then I costumed them in the doll take on authentic clothing.”

It proved his entrée into the world of Charles James. “The way I got him the hook was after pestering him I slipped a note under his door. I said could he help me with Marie de’Medici’s bodice I was having trouble with it and because it’s a doll normal construction doesn’t help. Immediately he called and said ‘Bring it up to me!’”

From his apprenticeship Long brought forward from that experience in a word “Everything.” He adopted James’ “architectural approach to the body and to fabric and shapes in space ” the backbone of Long’s costumes — virtual moving set pieces. “I learned focus and take no prisoners die trying and please yourself — major important thing ” Long says.

He counts James at the top of a list of world-class artists with whom he has had the privilege of working and he adds “I can tell you there’s a difference it’s a big divide.” His short list also includes the late Leonard Bernstein whom Long worked with at Yale on a student production of Bernstein’s Mass in Vienna; Paul Taylor the great American avant-garde dance choreographer and Louise Bourgeois the legendary abstract expressionist sculptor now in her late 90s and Long’s next-door neighbor.

“She’s turning out more work than ever. Titian did that too took that next final step. Titian lived to be 90 back when people lived to be 30 so Titian’s last period is so forward-looking and hers has always been so forward-looking. These are my four people to which you compare yourself and by whom you’re stimulated ” Long says “I’m just a sponge.”


The play’s the thing

William Ivey Long’s creative process

By Marimar McNaughton

“The play’s the thing ” William Ivey Long says a memento of his graduate school years at Yale School of Drama. Most people don’t realize that once it is set the script is gospel.

When he reads a new one he says “I have to hold myself back because there are 50 million ways to design a show otherwise there’d be only one Hamlet.”

Long had a leg-up on his education fathered by a theatre professor slash summer theatre technical director slash erstwhile playwright and mothered by an actress and costumer. He was born into the biz.

His career began in the Lost Colony costume shop and later on the boards of that longest running outdoor drama in American stage history. A North Carolina native Mr. Long holds a BA from The College of William and Mary studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama.

Hold back indeed. It is “very hard seriously very hard ” Long says. “I get up very early in the morning and that’s when I’m able to read. I used to be night person. I used to drink too and dance! Not much drinking and dancing anymore cutting of the rug as it were burning the candle. I did all those. I was in New York in the 70s for heaven’s sakes. Now in the morning I’m a farmer my racial memory is coming back as my farmer memory of getting up before the sun. That’s when I do my reading. I used to be able to read at night but I’m afraid I go right to sleep. So my real reading is in the morning. And the clear slate I’ll just say is never easy. It’s real hard.”

After absorbing the script Long meets with the director seeking character clues with which he will frame then costume their psychological arcs as literal and figurative moving set pieces.

“When someone comes onstage do you know they’re the villain or are you not supposed to know? Are they supposed to come out and … you know … be the one that’s going to end up with this one? Or is that going to be a surprise? They’re all different ways.

For instance I’m staring at an entire 15 by 15-foot room looking at boards after boards of references for ‘Young Frankenstein.’ What I do is put them up all around me so while I’m on the phone I’m also looking at staring at references of gypsies in movies from the 20s on. Mel Brooks referenced – when he was talking about Romanian gypsies he also sent up the film tradition of representing gypsies. I also want to know what the real Romanians the Romans the gypsies looked like I want to look at the send-up what Mel Brooks himself is sending up and contrast them you see. But I do that by staring at it. I learned that at Chapel Hill by the way when I was in graduate school in art history the act of staring. Everyday you look at paintings and architecture that’s your area. And you just look at them every single day. It trains your eye. And you learn proportion and detail. And you look and look and look at something you’re studying. It’s just like when you play the piano you train your hands. Designers and art historians and other people humans have to look at things.”

In his Chelsea studio with a core team of five colleagues Long builds flow charts “of who’s in what scene – before I even think and sketch. Then we gather all the research. I do all the sketching here. Then we do all the budgeting and the paperwork that’s on the computer and the swatching. I’m looking right out on the garden and that’s where I go. I check the light two ways under my yellow incandescent light from the ceiling cause that’s stage light and check with what I call God’s light just because it’s out there …now. I’m north facing so it’s a cooler God’s light at different times of the day but still I check it out there because it’s still the ultimate test.”

There might be layers of interfacing with the director the choreographer and other set and lighting designers and the producers ultimately approve the budget and in the end own the costumes unless Long buys them back. Once the designs have been approved Long heads for the shops.

“I divide a show into about six shops … I go and meet with the head of the shop and the drapers talk about my sketches then we drape a costume in muslin on a form just like you see in the movies they’re called muslins because they’re made out of muslin unless they’re a drapey fabric and then they’re draping crepe or cheap chiffon. Then you literally take what you’ve draped and you sew it together and you bring the actor in and they wear that little sewn together drape thing and you figure it out from there. Then you do a fitting in the real fabric – these are the minimums – you do the first fitting in the draped muslin basically sewn up then you fit it in fabric then you have a final fitting – minimum three fittings. I like to have up to five.”

As he talked last March Long was in previews for “Curtains” a new musical by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb the team that created “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”

“They freeze the show tomorrow and ” he says breezily “I’ve got a new dress to make … these things happen.”