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The Scarlet Pimpernel : Broadway's Most Intriguing Musical.

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Interview with Jane Greenwood

When I met Jane, she was surrounded by research she was doing for one of her current projects, The Great Gatsby. There were sketches all around and a board covered with photographs of people from the 1920s. She even showed me some of the sketches for The Scarlet Pimpernel, versions 1 and 3. If you've seen the UPN special, The Making of The Scarlet Pimpernel, you can see several of these sketches up close. They are drawn with tremendous detail, and colored in with beautiful water colors. Jane does most of the drawings herself.

NR: I believe you grew up in England. Is that correct?

JG: Yes, I grew up in England.

NR: When did you come to the U.S.?

JG: I came to Canada in 1960. I went to Stratford, Ontario and worked for a designer as a draper.

NR: What does a draper do?

JG: You look at the sketches and then you make the costumes from the sketches. I really sort of started over in this country in the practical end of working with costumes.

NR: When did you decide you wanted to do this?

JG: I think I liked dressing my dolls when I was a little girl. I always liked that but I didn't know that this was what I wanted to do. Sometimes I would go to the theater and think I wanted to be a dancer or I wanted to be an actress because it all fascinated me. When you don't have much experience you see the obvious thing. Then I realized that what I really loved and what I was always talking about was what everybody wore.

NR: So many people asked me what type of training they would need for this field. Many were interested in it.

JG: You know, it's very interesting about training for this. It's like looking at life. When you're a costume designer, you're not making things up necessarily. You don't have to be the "second coming for the next millennium" of what fashion is going to be like. You're always investigating the truth of people's characters visually. When you work on a period piece a long way away, such as the 1790's, you have limited resources. There are paintings but there aren't too many photographs. It's more limited. The rich were painted more than the poor so it's harder to find research for the lower classes. The further back you go, the lower down in the painting you have to look to find the variation for character of different people. But, really the training you need is to have a very wonderful background of a well-rounded education. You need to be a good historian. You need to be able to read a play and be able to understand it, and understand who those people are. Very often I will have students who will read a restoration play and they will say, "I didn't like that play very much. I didn't really find it very exciting, or very interesting." I'll say to them, "It's wonderful language and it's very funny." "Funny?" they'll say, and I'll say, "Let's all read it. You play so and so, you play this one..." and before you know where you are, you've got a group of people involved in trying to understand the language, make it sound interesting, and they begin to be involved. I think it's terribly important to understand the script. So, to be able to do that you need that good background of English literature and a good understanding of plays.

Then, you have to be interested in people. You have to be a people watcher. You're always going to be involved in what people wear. For me, it's infinitely fascinating. People will say, "It was ghastly! We were held over in the airport for five hours." You know, I can find a way to entertain myself for five hours without even trying. I look at all the people selling the various things in these little counters and what they wear. When you go to the beautician's counter, there are all sorts of people with the nails and the beautifully done make-up and the beautiful hair. The people who are serving the food and the people who are cleaning up around the airport - all the different levels of society that you see, and who all those people are. I love it when you see people sitting around and jockeying for position to get to the desk, to talk about what's going to happen with the plane, and I wonder, "What do they do?" "What does that man do? What business is he in? Why is he so pushy?" Look at his clothes. When you first look at him he looks pretty smart, but then you look and you see that his suit really needs to go to the cleaners and his shoes are a little down at heel. He doesn't really care.

NR: It's interesting that you haven't mentioned a knowledge of fabric or sewing...

JG: But that's later, that's later.

NR: And not as important I guess...

JG: Well, other people make the clothes for you. You go to costume shops and you have people who are going to then put in their two cents worth about how to make something. They will look at the sketch and they will say "Should we try it this way?" Also, when I'm working on a period piece like this I will tend to get a little group of people who are going to work on a show. I will get them together and we'll go to a museum. We went up to the Metropolitan Museum and we looked at all of their men's coats very carefully to see how they were cut, how they were lined, what kind of buttons they used, what button holes were left open and what button holes were closed because you often see a coat with fourteen buttons down one side and fourteen button holes, but they don't open them all. They very often open just one or two that they're going to fasten. All those details - if you can go and see a real coat, really see where the sleeve is set into the coat, how narrow the shoulders were, then it's a great help. I found when I first worked with Douglas Sills who was playing the Scarlet Pimpernel, he was avid to go look at the research with me. He found it very helpful to see how the men stood in their clothes, how they held themselves, how they held their heads with those high cravats. It's watching how people behave and that's what you always have to be looking for. When you're a designer, you're always looking for the ideas. You want to find ideas that you can work with.

NR: How many shows do you generally do in a year?

JG: It depends. The average is probably about four.

NR: Are you doing one at a time, or more than one at a time?

JG: Sometimes I'm doing more than one at a time.

NR: Is that confusing?

JG: You have to keep everything in its order. You have to try to keep every show in its place. I try not to work on more than one at a time because it's too hard.

NR: Do you find that you're so much in demand that you have to turn some shows down?

JG: Well, yes.

NR: So then you get to pick the shows you want?

JG: (laughing) Yes, and I'm more choosy as I get older.

NR: Do you have a regular staff that you use all the time no matter what show you're working on, or do you bring in different people?

JG: I have some people who work with me on a fairly regular basis and I have some people who come in and help on different projects if it's something that they seem right for and they want to be involved in. I do have a core nucleus of people that I work with.

NR: With a show the size of Pimpernel, how many people would be involved in that?

JG: When I first started on The Pimpernel, I had an associate designer who was here in the studio with me while we were getting all of the sketches done. Because there were so many, she would help draw and paint. One would draw this and paint that and we were very much in sync getting the show visually done. I had another person doing research apart from the research I'd done. I had done an enormous amount before I actually started designing. I have a couple of people who came at the end - shoppers/interns, and that was about it.


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Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.




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