The designing woman of Stratford
For Five seasons Tanya Moiseiwitsch has been dazzling audiences and critics with breath-taking costumes she creates for the Shakespearean festival. The only thing that bothers her is explaining how she does it
The designing woman of Stratford
For five seasons Tanya Moiseiwitsch has been dazzling audiences and critics with the breath-taking costumes she creates for the Shakespearean festival. The only thing that bothers her is explaining how she does it
Tyrone Guthrie, a theatrical director whose name is known to most Canadians, once remarked sadly that nobody realizes how much the distinctive style of a play is visual and comes from people whose names appear in small type at the end of a program.
At Stratford, Ontario, audiences are proving him wrong. For five years a rich kaleidoscope of color has been paraded before their dazzled eyes. They have murmured over such breath-taking costumes as the red-velvet coronation robe for Richard 111, sat transfixed before actors wearing six-inch soles and outsize abstract ma.ks in Oedipus Rex. thrilled to battles between red-coated Britishers and bluecoated Frenchmen in Henry V. and stared agape at a stage on which anything might appear, from a fat Falstaff in rolls of rubberized horsehair in The Merry Wives of Windsor to a mock, pint-sized automobile with real headlights and painted unholstery in The Taming of the Shrew. For the first time in their lives, many of them confess, they actually like Shakespeare!
The magician largely responsible for this sleight of hand, they have come to realize. >s a modest, dark-haired, fortythree-year-old Englishwoman by the unusual name of Tanya Moiseiwitsch (pronounced Mo-zay-a-vitsch), aided and abetted by lesser magicians who do her bidding with needle, thread, scissors and glue.
Miss Moiseiwitsch designed the costumes and the props for all nine productions that were continued over page-
“Voguish and roguish” festival costumes like these designed by Moisei witsch made one critic wonder “why anybody bothered to invent scenery”
The designing woman of Stratford continued
staged in Stratford’s original tent theatre. Twelfth Night, her latest creation, is now on the boards in the new permanent theatre, which supplants the tent (and whose interior design is also her work). Brooks Atkinson, drama critic of the New York Times, referring to the revolutionary three-tiered stage without sets or ornament, which she designed with Guthrie at Stratford five years ago, calls her “the original designer of North America’s most original stage.” Critic Walter Kerr, of the New York Herald Tribune, has marveled that her costumes "make you wonder why anybody ever bothered to invent scenery.”
“Invigorating,” “stunning,” “both Voguish and roguish” are adjectives other critics have employed to describe her costumes. Her prestige in the United States is so high that the American Stage Designers Union, whose ranks are ordinarily hard to crash, recently took the unprecedented step of inviting her to join them and work in New York.
If Miss Moiseiwitsch is gratified by such wholesale recognition, she doesn’t show it. Honors and praise embarrass her and she ignores them whenever she can. Wandering into the small cubicle that Tanya calls her office one day late last April, Mary Jolliffe, publicity director for the Stratford Festival, spied an officiallooking white card dated March 20 stuck on the bulletin board, almost hidden under a clutter of memos. It was an urgent reminder that unless Miss Moiseiwitsch jotted down her business address and mailed it back immediately, she'd be too late to be included in the special anniversary volume of Who's Who in America,
just going to press. Miss Jolliffe was not surprised to find the card still unmailed. She says. “Tanya couldn't care less whether or not she's in Who's Who."
Because she insists on trying to share the limelight with everybody else, in a field known for its professional jealousies, Miss Moiseiwitsch is nobody’s target. "A lovely, elegant, extremely creative lady, less composed than she appears and cleverer than she pretends,” Tyrone Guthrie says of her. Fellow workers admire her passion for perfection and her fey sense of humor, based on an element of surprise and a talent for mimicry—she collects voices like other people collect china. Much of her clowning is “wardrobe humor,” intelligible only to those who work with her, but Stratford audiences come across her (fair for comedy every summer in the perfection of her character costumes. She loves dressing actors for character roles. Three years ago. when Guthrie decided to direct The Taming of the Shrew, she was in her clement. Her costumes, as Peterborough critic Robertson Davies points out in his book Twice Have the Trumpets Sounded, were “not precisely like anything in the heavens above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.”
To begin with, they were not the customary sixteenth-century Italian costumes, but what Tanya calls “a loose interpretation of Canadian turn-of-thc-century.” Petruchio was dressed in the loose overalls and bleached straw hat of a typical Canadian farmer's son. Katharina emerged from the horse trough in a limp white dress that Miss Moiseiwitsch had carried out back of the festival building and continued on page 54
The designing woman of Stratford
Continued from page 19
In wartime Britain she dressed a cast in lace curtains. In Stratford, Oedipus wore fishnet
burned, jumped on and splattered with dirt. The painfully funny Pedant wore a crumpled motorist’s duster coat. The bespectacled Petruchio capered on a painted hobby horse, and a ridiculous red plywood automobile, with crank and rolldown roof, chugged across the stage, clearly propelled by the legs of the two men inside it.
Hand in hand with Miss Moiseiwitsch's love of comedy goes her passion for perfection in anything she touches. Last year she made three trips to a Toronto shoe factory before she was satisfied that the cuffs on some cavalier boots flared out exactly right.
Dama Bell, wife of festival president A. M. Bell, recalls that she offered to help with some last-minute sewing for Henry V and was set to work stitching hundreds of tiny ermine tails (actually bits of white felt flecked with black paint) to the hem of Eleanor Stuart's gown. When the actress made her entrance, Mrs. Bell was astounded to observe that all but half a dozen of the little tails were hidden under a voluminous cloak. “I know,” said Tanya, “but what if she'd tripped and the rest of the hem showed?”
People who work with Miss Moiseiwitsch find she understands their problems. That's because she came up through the ranks herself. Her pianist father, the famous Benno Moiseiwitsch. and her violinist mother (now divorced and remarried to poet John Drinkwater) had intended their daughter to be a concert artist, but at sixteen Tanya laid aside her Irish harp and enrolled at the London School of Arts and Crafts. One of her teachers recommended her to the Old Vic, which admitted two students every year (for a fee) as apprentices, and allowed them to slap glue on canvas and clean paint pots. She applied, was accepted, and worked hard for the next few years, gaining the experience that today helps her know—as Guthrie puts it—“not only what she wants a thing to look like, but why, and also how it's made.”
Miss Moiseiwitsch gives much of the credit for her successful career to Guthrie, and certainly some of her most exciting work has been done for him. but Guthrie is outraged to think he's regarded as the power behind the Moiseiwitsch throne. “Tanya’s creative in her own right,” he insists.
Actually, the Guthrie - Moiseiwitsch team is comparatively new. although they met each other twenty-five years ago when Guthrie was the Old Vic’s brilliant new Irish director and Tanya was a schoolgirl, watching from the wings. It was a director named Hugh Hunt who gave her a start as his designer for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. She went to Ireland on a three-month basis and stayed three years. Back in England she landed the job of designer at the Oxford Playhouse, where she spent the next few years coping with wartime restrictions on sets and costumes. She recalls one production of The Merchant of Venice in which everybody was costumed in unrationed lace curtains and looked delightfully Venetian.
After her young air force husband Felix Krish, died in an air crash. Miss Moiseiwitsch threw herself into her career with renewed vigor. By the time she joined Guthrie at the Old Vic’s Liverpool Playhouse at the end of the war. she was recognized as one of Britain’s top theatrical designers. Directors liked to work with her because she didn’t try to “express her personality” at the expense of their productions. Her sets and costumes were imaginative but not obtrusive. She was sometimes accused of dipping her brush in dirty water, especially for the sombre sets for Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and the Covent Garden production of Benjamin Britten’s opera. Peter Grimes, but her low-key palette suited Guthrie fine.
“Thank God Tanya’s not one of those designers who chirp, ‘Heavens! We haven't used mauve for twenty minutes! Let’s do the next scene all mauve!’” he recently remarked.
Miss Moiseiwitsch says she's drawn to Chekhov: she thinks it may be her Russian ancestry breaking through. But she
says grimly, “If color is called for. I can dollop it out”—and can point to her designs for a gay British musical called Bless the Bride, the magnificent pageantry of the Coronation performance of Henry VIII, and ten colorful Canadian productions at Stratford.
At Stratford her colors are heightened by contrast with the bare stage she and Guthrie designed in 1952, a dramatic and utilitarian affair of three tiers, with four entrances and a balcony set back on pillars, which is preserved in the new permanent festival theatre building. For this stage, surrounded on three sides by audience. Miss Moiseiwitsch dressed Guthrie’s productions of Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well, in 1953, described by Atkinson, of the New York Times, as “the most vital production of Shakespeare that most of us have ever seen.”
Since then Miss Moiseiwitsch has designed costumes and props for four more Stratford festivals, and has worked with three different directors: Guthrie, Michael Langham and Cecil Clark. Her period designs have ranged all the way from Julius Caesar, which she did in Roman Renaissance, to the wildly mounted The Taming of the Shrew.
Most fantastic of all were the costumes she designed for Guthrie’s impressive version of the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex. Audiences remember a chorus
ff actors in strange, larger-than-life masks and high boots, a blinded Oedipus hidden under purple wool and black fishnet, and a weird prophet dressed like a bird in a feathered headdress and a necklace of broken shells, with claws for hands. Oedipus is remembered vividly by the backstage staff who had only two weeks to make the costumes. The production was staged at Stratford two years running, and was subsequently filmed.
Plans for Twelfth Night, now being performed at Stratford, began as far back as December 1956. when Guthrie stopped over in London on his way to New York and suggested it would be fun to do the play in a seventeenth-century Dutch setting, with emphasis on the paintings of Frans Hals and Van Dyck. Miss Moiseiwitsch agreed.
Guthrie expounded his ideas. Twelfth Night, which Shakespeare intended to be performed without scenery, could be shown off to advantage on Stratford's bare stage. The story, concerning a twin sister and brother who believe each other lost in a shipwreck, is a favorite Shakespeare mélange of girls disguised as boys, lovers in love with the wrong people, and things getting worse before they get better.
"It's springtime, in an imaginary country called Illyria, so the womer should look like azaleas,” said Guthrie, who likes to describe color in terms of flowers. (Once, working on The Beggars' Opera, he suggested that a certain cloak be "cineraria blue." Miss Moiseiwitsch had to consult a London florist to discover he meant purple.)
Because Guthrie and Miss Moiseiwitsch have worked together on so many plays, they mutter constantly to each other in a kind of private shorthand that makes it impossible to say which of them thinks of anything first. “Tony says something, 1 say something, and sparks begin to fly,” Tanya explains. She recalls that she had to reread Twelfth Night, study the work of old Dutch masters in I.ondon's National Gallery, buy herself art books to study at home, and spend days in the Victoria and Albert Museum, steeping herself in the seventeenth century. Evenings, she and Guthrie talked endlessly.
Slowly, partly from the printed page and partly from Guthrie’s interpretation. the characters began to emerge.
Enter, for example. Sir Andrew Aguecheck. whose hair, according to Shakespeare, “hangs like flax on the distaff.”
Miss Moiseiwitsch sees Sir Andrew standing in front of her, a sad sort of fool with pale straight hair. He is not a member of the mourning family, so he is not wearing black. But he is a gentleman. so he is clothed elegantly in something discreet. “Parma violet?” suggests Guthrie (or maybe Tanya). “Good!” says Tanya (or maybe Guthrie).
Enter Olivia, in mourning. She should look sad but not dull. What about a gown of black moiré, trimmed with a more lively black like velvet? Good.
Enter Viola, disguised as a boy . . .
By Christmas time Miss Moiseiwitsch was ready to begin. Clearing off a table in her crowded little flat, she lined up pens, pencils and watercolors — she’s never used oils in her life — and settled down to sketch. At her feet slept her fog-colored cat, Peter Grimes, born during the Covent Garden production of the famous British opera.
Miss Moiseiwitsch draws with her left hand, but she can scribble directions to the wardrobe department with either hand. Unlike some designers, who prepare only rough conceptions of costumes and expect their assistants to take them from there, she has a craftsman's ap-
proach and her designs are practically blueprints. Last summer she made more than a hundred sketches for Henry V and carefully pictured every bit of braid and button for every minor character. Unlike most designers, she draws faces on her sketches, each so subtly drawn to blend with the character of the costume that Stratford’s actors often base their make-up on her sketches.
After she had numbered her Twelfth Night sketches and pinned snippets of suggested materials to each one. Miss Moiseiwitsch turned her attention to
props. Twelfth Night, being a domestic comedy without armies or battles, there were comparatively few: some garden furniture, a couple of hunting guns, a zither and bells for the musicians, and a bundle of laundry. Later on, when the play went into rehearsal under Guthrie’s inventive eye, there would be more.
It is Miss Moiseiwitsch's usual practice to bundle up her sketches and mail them to Canada ahead of her own arrival. But this year, because she was responsible for the interior design of the new permanent theatre, she brought them
with her in February. After artistic director Michael Langham had studied them briefly, they were passed on to Ray Diffen. head of the costume department, who had just arrived after a successful season of his own in New York doing the clothes for Tennessee Williams’ new play, Orpheus Descending, and to Brian Jackson, an assistant designer from England who heads the Stratford properties department. Jackson was amused to note that what Miss Moiseiwitsch calls “that miser's thing" wasn’t on the prop list. He explains, "Even in England, Tan-
ya has an amazing memory for the props on hand in Stratford. ‘That miser’s thing’ is the jewelled casket we used in The Merchant of Venice. Painted gold, it got kicked about the stage in Tambourlaine as loot, and then last year we dug it out again, covered it in blue velvet with French motifs and used it again in Henry V. Some designers would die before they’d use an old prop for a new play, but not Tanya. If something can be fixed up and used again, she figures that’s all to the good.”
By the beginning of March things were beginning to hum in the old converted woollen mill on Frie Street that was festival headquarters. Miss Moiseiwitsch had settled down in a small office with Desmond Heeley, a newcomer this year, who was designing Michael Fangham’s production of Hamlet, in the slashed sleeves and tight trousers of German Renaissance.
A few yards away, Jackson was constructing a scaled model, half an inch to the foot, of the new theatre for her to study and discuss with architect Bob Fairfield and assistant artistic director Tom Brown.
Meanwhile, in the costume department Diffen gathered together the designs for both plays, and then set off on a buying spree. For two days he wandered through Toronto department stores, snipping bits off bolts of cloth, refusing to consider anything that cost more than five dollars a yard. On the third day, mindful of the ten-percent discount offered to the festival by Eaton’s, he placed his order for nine hundred and fifty yards, most of it drapery material, which he and Miss Moiseiwitsch favor for costumes because it’s wide, it’s heavy and it gives a rich “period look.” Later he would order an additional five hundred yards, some of it direct from the manufacturer. Last year materials for Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor cost ninety-five hundred dollars, with an additional thirty-five hundred spent for props. The hundred and twenty-five costumes required this year (ninety for Hamlet, thirty-five for Twelfth Night) cost about the same.
It’s characteristic of Miss Moiseiwitsch that she leaves Diffen entirely on his own until first fittings roll around in May. While she dashed around ordering hats from Lily Jamón and shoes from the Snug Fit Shoe Company in Toronto, he cut out his first costumes. Usually these arc the ones embodying the most features of the period, which will serve him as a kind of guinea pig for the others. (In the case of Twelfth Night, these were the suits for the gentlemen of the court.) Because he figures he’s wasting time altering both sides of a suit, he makes only one side (one sleeve, one leg, etc.) before fitting it onto its wearer. Men’s clothes he cut on the fiat; women's clothes he draped (but women’s clothes he left until the actresses arrived in May and could be buttoned up into their high-waisted foundation garments).
So that the clothes wouldn’t look as if they’d all been made by the same dressmaker, Diffen divided the wardrobe among himself and his two assistant costumers. Annette Geber and Judy PeytonWard. To give the clothes a lived-in look, he and his staff (now numbering fifteen) touched them up with dark paint, tossed them in dusty corners, crumpled them into balls and left them lying about.
Upstairs, while all this was going on. Miss Moiseiwitsch’s duties were increasing. There were almost daily conferences about the interior design of the new theatre. “I'm learning a lot about light and shade and volume and space." she confided to Martha Jamieson, a
young Canadian designer who had been chosen to carry out the décor once it had been settled on. “And d’you know what? Hemlock is a wood! I always thought it was something Socrates drank!”
As the weeks went by the problems multiplied. Fifteen applications had come in for the new post of assistant to the designers; it was up to Miss Moiseiwitsch to interview the applicants and choose somebody who could stand up to the strain of a Stratford production in the making.
Brian Jackson was busy making helmets of indestructible, lightweight Fibreglas for Heeley’s show (he had introduced the plastic to Stratford and was using it for the first time this year on molds), but he had a problem in a cane scat for Twelfth Night. It must be wide enough to hold Olivia’s full skirts, rustic enough to he made by peasants, delicate enough not to block the view when nobody was sitting on it, and dark enough not to “kick” the lights. He and Tanya conferred.
From Toronto, milliner Lily Jamón wrote that ostrich feathers glued together didn’t make sufficiently impressive twofoot plumes for some wide-brimmed hats. She would have to think of something else.
Bill Kersh, the shoemaker, had been rushed to hospital for an appendectomy and was worried the shoes might be held up.
Through all of this. Miss Moiseiwitsch went on her way calm, collected and even-tempered. The only things known to disturb her composure are her encounters with the inquisitive press who expect her to be analytical about her work. Analytical is what Tanya isn't. “If I stopped to ask myself why I do something one way instead of some other way. I’d be paralyzed,” she says. “Unless some specific problem crops up, I just work." Not even the appearance of the actors in May, referred to as “DDay" by the rest of the staff, causes her to panic the way a recent appearance on television did. Asked to sit for a tenminute television interview, she was ner-
The whole problem of compulsory retirement at 65 needs a searching look by both management and labor. Management must be prepared to allow efficient workers to work beyond age 65 and use the tremendous savings to provide more adequate pensions for all employees, whenever they retire. Labor unions must be prepared to allow the retirement of their inefficient members at 65 or before, so that the savings from postponed retirement are not offset by a corresponding loss in productivity.
1 must direct some of my criticism of shallow thinking on security against our federal government. First, the Old Age Security Act that will soon pay every citizen $46 per month at seventy. The principle involved in this is so wrong that I find myself embarrassed when I try to explain it to friends in other countries. Let’s take two men, both seventy. One is totally unemployable because of mental or physical deterioration or some other reason and has no income. The other is fortunate enough to be mentally and physically healthy and has an income of six thousand dollars a year. The first will receive a total of $46 per month, which allows him to live only like an animal. The second receives, in addition to his regular income, an extra $36.80 per month from the government ($46 per month less income tax of twenty percent). In my mind Canada can afford to provide all its indigent citizens with a minimum subsistence income and, in terms of 1957 dollars, that is probably about $80 per month for a single person and $130 per month for a married couple. I don’t think Canada can afford, and I believe it’s morally wrong, to provide any additional income to citizens fortunate enough to have an adequate income. If $80 per month for a single person and $130 per month for a couple provides a subsistence living, and if it is paid to everyone over a certain age, it should he subject to a steeply graded income tax so that anyone who has an income of, say, over $2,500 per year would have it all taxed away from him.
Some people say that the type of automatic means test I have advocated would discourage thrift and independence. I simply don’t believe that Canadians would willingly give up working and saving for an independent income that would allow them to live reasonably well, in order to receive a government-provided minimum subsistence income. Our older indigents do not arrive at their position willingly. They are there because of poor health, bad luck, mental deterioration and some-
times, but not very often, just damn foolishness. Those of us who are more fortunate should be prepared to allow them to live better than animals, even though it must involve giving up a subsidy for ourselves.
Another example of shallow thinking by our government is its policy of discouraging deferred profit-sharing plans. Many people sincerely believe that the greatest contribution to this country’s security can be made by creating a spirit of co-operation between capital and labor, and that the way to do this is through profit-sharing. In the U. S. deferred profitsharing plans are very successful and are found in such large corporations as SearsRoebuck, Standard Oil of California, and many others. These deferred profit-sharing plans are against our government’s policy and the government has effectively stopped them by passing legislation that would immediately tax the employee (at his highest rate of tax) on the employer’s profit-sharing contributions to the fund, even though the employee will not receive the money for many years, and even if the employee never receives it. It would subject many employees to a capital levy. the most wicked of all taxes.
Another surprising item is the government’s policy of discouraging adequate pension plans for employees of companies as distinct from employees of governments. The government’s own civil-service pension plan is quite generous and is the type many Canadians would like to offer their employees. Yet, through an ill-conceived clause in the Income Tax Act, the government will not approve a company’s costs of such a pension plan if any of the employees involved earn more than about $8,000 per year, and, of course, many employees do earn more than $8,000 per year today, in government service as well as in corporations.
If we arc going to have an intelligent security program in Canada there has to be a high level of understanding of what security means, on the part of employers, labor unions and government, as well as our citizens generally. We should realize that as a nation we cannot save dollars for our future security. Future security must come from the nation’s future production and anything that unnecessarily withdraws workers from production increases the burden of security. Above all, we must have more faith in the Canadian character than to believe that the provision of a decent subsistence living for our indigents will discourage the rest of us from working and saving for our own independence.