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Interview with Costume Designer, Michael Krass

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? How did you become a costume designer?

Michael Krass: Born in Connecticut, the first plays that I saw were Broadway plays, so it set a standard in my head and eye. I went to school at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, which meant that I did a bit of everything-when I got out, I had designed a lot of scenery, I thought acting was not for me and that I wasn't smart enough to be a director, so I came to New York and talked my way into a job at a costume company. I actually had never designed costumes before, and I never had a costume class.

TS: I want to talk about your approach to this specific show, Machinal, because if I am not mistaken, there is an extraordinary amount of costume changes.

MK: When I met with Lyndsey Turner, the director, for the job interview this summer, we talked for an hour. She only looked at three images from my portfolio, total. She really just wanted to know who I was. We had a great talk, and she politely warned me that there would be a huge amount of costumes, and I said, "Bring it on." There are transitions between each scene full of characters who may or may not be in the text, but certainly are in the play. So, yes, it's enormous. There are already six full racks of clothes and we are adding to that. Lyndsey just got to New York and she looked at the racks yesterday. We spent two hours talking through everything. Every single thing that she said about the clothes she saw was in response to the story-only the story-not personal taste or judgments-and that was great.

Clothing racks from the rehearsal room.

TS: What did you do to get inside this particular play?

MK: I started by looking at images of the 1920s in New York, while simultaneously keeping my eye on today's clothing. It is always important to look at it with a modern eye because that is how the audience is looking at the play. Lyndsey and I sent images back and forth to each other and started to narrow down the world. I would send her ten images saying, "What do you think of this? What do you think of these kinds of people?" And she would send back three of the images and would say, "I think this kind of thing because of this, that and this." It became clear that every garment would be authentic to the '20s. I am in fact using a great number of garments that were made then, which has taken a good amount of work. In some cases we will have to copy them because they are fragile. And then what I developed on my own here, when Lyndsey was working with Es Devlin on the scenery in England, was a color palette. I thought we needed to tell an emotional story through color, and so I proposed a color journey which came from the emotional feeling of each scene. Everything is chosen very specifically per scene. There may be a shoe from 1923 which is perfect, but if it is not the right color, then it is not in the play.

Rebecca Hall and Michael Cumpsty in Machinal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Weren't the 1920s a radical shift for clothing? Can you fill us in on that?

MK: It's the most enormous shift in fashion history. Following World War I, life changed, social life changed, the class system changed, women left the house, women had work, women played sports, and classes mixed. That all happened during the 1920s. Hair was cut during the course of the'20s, and for the first time in history, women were showing their legs, arms, back-it was a very, very fast race away from the horror of the war. Simultaneously, we entered the machine age, and there was speed, there was movement. The '20s are about physical freedom. The beginning part of the play we are setting in the early '20s when things were just shifting. Dresses are long, men's collars are very high and formal and then, in the later part of the play, you will see more leg, more flesh, some amount of color and some amount of sleekness. We are aiming at 1923 for the early scenes and about 1928 for the later ones.

TS: Can you remember your emotional response to first reading the play?

MK: It is one of the great plays, and it's been marginalized into "women's theatre" instead of being recognized as a great human play. Lyndsey is very specific. She's not doing a feminist play, she's doing a human play, and I find that approach to be exhilarating.

TS: Talk about working with actors. I understand you are very empathetic to the actors' needs.

MK: We need to be specific. That's what actors do: they develop incredibly specific characters. When the cast starts rehearsals this week, they will start to be assigned characters who may or may not be scripted and they will start to form ideas in their heads. So if I don't use who they are inventing, I have failed. If an actor is creating a high-powered, glamorous lawyer, I need to know that, so we can make the suit fit precisely. We can get the precise collar, special shoes, and the right jewelry. We can make sure the hair has shine and glow to it. So I have 18 actors who are, for the most part, creating well over a hundred characters, and it is all about reacting to their personal discoveries.

TS: In today's economy it is rare to get the opportunity to work on a play of this scope. True?

MK: The Roundabout has afforded me that opportunity more than any other theatre. I have designed Twelve Angry Men, I did A View from the Bridge, which was enormous, and After the Fall, and I did The Constant Wife, which was also set in the '20s and was, in fact, the flip side of the costume coin-it has all the gloss of upper class Britain.

TS: How will you collaborate with the other designers?

MK: It is interesting because Lyndsey works primarily in the British system where scenery and costumes are done by one person. So this is new for her. I have written a long document to the designers upon Lyndsey's request, about the color path I am inventing. She sent it to Es, and I was so anxious. In fact, Es was very excited by it and had some great suggestions. She was, it turns out, inspired by some of the choices that I had made. Jane Cox, the lighting designer, has been copied on everything. I've invited her to see the racks of clothes, which are in scene order, so she can walk through all the color and texture changes and react to them in her medium.

Rebecca Hall & Morgan Spector in Machinal. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Lyndsey made me aware of a Vogue shoot you worked on with Rebecca Hall.

MK: It's a story for Vogue about Rebecca in this play, and it needed to be shot in August or September. I got a call from Phyllis Posnick, who is one of the legendary photo editors at Vogue, she was making the photo shoot happen - booking the photographer and creating the imagery. She asked me for my point of view. She said that she had some garments that might work for Rebecca, who was in London, and asked if I would be interested in coming up to Vogue and looking at them. I told her I had some dresses as well that might be useful to the photo shoot if she wanted me to bring them. So I arrived at Vogue with a suitcase filled with '20s dresses and coats, so excited. I showed Phyllis mine and she showed me hers, and she lit up at one of the dresses that I have had under my bed for 25 years. I was there for about an hour. I walked through the halls of Vogue and I was thrilled by it. My impression was that it was a laboratory in the sky above Times Square where people truly cared about the world of human clothing in a way that was heightened and very, very thoughtful. It was amazing.

TS: Is there anything else you want to say about your craft or the play?

MK: I want to say this is the best job that I have ever had. It is exactly what I care about: working intimately with actors and creating authenticity in a world where authenticity is leaving us. I spend my life on the subway watching people and understanding who they are by what they wear. I am getting to translate that into a piece of theatre that really matters with a great director. I am in heaven.

Machinal plays at the American Airlines Theatre through March 2. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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