Most people don't know that a theater legend has been in town for the past couple of weeks. Jane Greenwood, who has designed the costumes for the Opera Theatre's production of Jane Eyre, is one of the most distinguished designers in American theater, with more than 100 Broadway shows on her résumé. Noel Coward, Lillian Hellman, Thornton Wilder, Neil Simon, William Inge and Stephen Sondheim are just a handful of the dramatists whose characters have been garbed by Greenwood.
Although she has designed for everyone from Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro ("My life has been studded with legends," she says), Greenwood rarely utters the word "costumes." Instead she talks about clothes. "I think 'costumes' is a misnomer," she suggests. "Who wears a costume? Everything I do is geared to the clothes. If actors feel that what they are wearing is accurate, then they will give accurate performances."
Can Greenwood recall an instance where an actor helped to make her designs better? "Jason Robards always made them better," she answers. "He had a way of putting things on and making them an extension of his persona." With some other actors, she says, "you have to be very patient and let them find their own way with the clothes. I sometimes think a designer has to be a den mother and a psychiatrist rolled into one."
In 1962 a combination of talent and serendipity brought Greenwood from Liverpool, England, to America by way of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival. Once here, she met and married the esteemed scenic designer Ben Edwards. With loving nepotism, Edwards gave his bride her first Broadway credit when he produced Edward Albee's Ballad of the Sad Café. Her next designs were for Richard Burton's celebrated rehearsal Hamlet in 1964, followed by Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy.
"I got pigeonholed as 'downtrodden and depressed,'" Greenwood says, noting that designers can be as typecast as actors. Although she's done lots of Shakespeare, Shaw and O'Neill, she especially enjoys designing for and collaborating with living writers: "They know more than any of the rest of us do about their plays."
Tennessee Williams, for instance: "What a wonderful man he was. For Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the American Shakespeare Theater in Connecticut I designed a simple green taffeta dress for Elizabeth Ashley's Maggie. And Tennessee came to the dress rehearsal, and he said, 'You know, Jane, Maggie really should be in peach, and it really should be chiffon.' And I said, 'Well, here we are; we have the dress.' And with a gleam in his eye, he said, 'We'll work it out. Somebody will pay for it.' So I did the peach chiffon, and it was pulsing and sexy and absolutely right."
Edward Albee also has clear ideas. "Particularly about the men," Greenwood says. "Invariably he'll describe one of the characters in a tweed jacket and slacks, and it's always a slight variation of the conservative, Ivy League clothes that he wears himself." Greenwood has designed three productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? including last year's Broadway revival with Kathleen Turner as Martha. "She is brilliant," Greenwood says of Turner. "She is the best Martha of them all."
Although Greenwood's career has not slowed down, in recent years her priorities have changed. "I'm no longer so prone to take the commercial shows," she says. "I've become more interested in doing what I want to do and working with the people I want to work with. I love opera, so I'm doing a lot more of that," including Jane Eyre, her third show with Opera Theatre of St. Louis. "I love the atmosphere here. I love the vitality of the place."
Next month she designs the world premiere production of The Great Gatsby that opens the new Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. In the fall she'll be back at Yale, where she has taught design for 30 years. Then there will be another show, and another. Her career has indeed been studded with legends. But Jane Greenwood has been so preoccupied making actors look good and feel comfortable onstage, she hasn't had time to realize that she's now a legend herself.