‘Sorry to keep you waiting,” says award-winning costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser. When we met late on a weekday afternnon at the production office of the television show “Law and Order” in a giant warehouse of a building on Pier 62 on the Hudson River in New York City, von Mayrhauser had already been hard at work since 6:45 that morning checking out the costumes for an early-morning shoot on the already steamy streets of Manhattan. Not surprisingly, by afternoon, a costume fitting for yet another episode has been running late.
I wait. On the call board is noted: “Day 4 of 9, episode 17004, 3 scenes shooting.” When I am summoned, a costume assistant leads me through a maze, past the empty courtroom set and racks of costumes. I finally meet von Mayrhauser whose “office” is a corner desk piled with scripts and hedged in by racks of clothes. This is definitely a work environment.
Setting “Law and Order” aside, we are there to talk about “The Birthday Party,” written by 2005 Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, the opening play of the McCarter Theater season that goes into previews in the Berlind Theater on Friday, September 8. Von Mayrhauser has been a long-time collaborator of artistic director Emily Mann, having designed costumes for well over a dozen McCarter productions.
With two designer assistants and a staff of wardrobe people, von Mayrhauser balances an unbelievably busy schedule with the weekly “Law and Order” productions. Add to that designing the costumes for “The Birthday Party,” while simultaneously putting the finishing touches on costumes for the upcoming Playwrights Horizon production of “The Pain and the Itch,” which opened Friday, September 1. In her “spare time,” she heads up the costume department and teaches at Brandeis University.
“I love my job,” says von Mayrhauser. “It’s always interesting, whether I’m thinking about these relatively poor people written by Pinter or (for “Law & Order”) figuring out what a drug dealer would wear on Avenue A. It’s fascinating. That’s the essence of being a costume designer.” And she seems to thrive on the variety, whether she’s imagining street kids on “Law and Order,” three sisters who dream of going to Moscow, or Pinter people in a seedy shore town. “Actually it’s always about the character and the story, whether it’s the 1880s or 2006, it comes from the story” — and that goes for be plays, movies, and television scripts. “It’s about who that person is.”
According to von Mayrhauser, the process of costume design involves reading, research, character analysis, historical perspective, “where this person fits in the story,” and collaboration with other artists. “What’s fun about my job is that it is my way of expressing myself in reference to plays, characters, colors, and exploring different worlds. Rather than directing or acting, I’m working with clothes in collaboration with the director and also with the actors. We sort of have a partnership in creating the character. And I love working with people.”
Von Mayrhauser has been designing professionally since she came to New York City after graduating in 1970 from Northwestern University with a degree in theater arts. In New York she studied at Lester Polakov’s Studio and Forum of Stage Design, but not at Yale University as is widely noted on Internet sources. “It’s nice of them to give me an MA, but I didn’t do that,” she quips. She supposes that this misinformation grew from the fact that from the ages of five to 19, she lived in New Haven, where her father, Thomas G. Bergin, was a professor of romance languages and master of the Timothy Dwight College at Yale.
Von Mayrhauser’s artistic eye and fondness for research came to her naturally. Her father specialized in Dante, Plutarch, and Yale football facts and figures; her mother, who was English, wrote her masters degree thesis on the Art Nouveau/ Golden Age illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. This environment was augmented by her early education at one of the nation’s leading college-preparatory schools for young women, the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York.
She met Emily Mann in the late 1970s, when they were both working at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Their friendship developed from there. Other than the fact that both women have exceptionally busy artistic careers, Mayrhauser thinks that their connection stems from their both being daughters of college professors, and maybe also that they are both mothers. “When Emily got married, my daughter and I helped her get dressed for the occasion,” von Meyrhauser says. “When her son was born, I visited at the hospital.” This closeness certainly gives them the advantage of a kind of “shorthand” when they work together.
Their first professional collaboration, “around 1978,” von Mayrhauser says, was for a production of “The Glass Menagerie,” in which Barbara Bryne played Amanda. Bryne appears in McCarter’s production of “The Birthday Party.”
“The Birthday Party,” often described as a “comedy of menace,” is set in a seedy seaside boarding house owned by Meg and Petey. They have only one boarder, Stanley, a sad guy. During the play, three other characters arrive and stir up the mix. One is a young woman named Lulu; the others, an old Jewish man, Goldberg, and an Irishman, McCann. Meg decides to have a birthday party for Stanley. This is the skeleton of the story that in usual Pinter fashion has many levels and has been interpreted in many ways.
Mann has decided to set “The Birthday Party” in the present day rather than in the 1950s as it was originally produced. “I was resistant at first,” says von Mayrhauser, “but Emily explained that the subject matter is archetypical and would work whether contemporary or ‘period.’” The desire is to make the story and characters more accessible, less distant.
As is often part of von Mayrhauser’s process in design, she looks to other visual artists for keys to each character’s appearance. For “The Birthday Party,” she feels that there is definitely a feel of David Hockney’s colors and the way he places his figures in a painting. “There’s a (Hockney) painting of a young girl and an old man that seems very Goldberg and Lulu,” she says. “And there’s a self-portrait of Hockney that has a feeling of Stanley.” Von Mayrhauser says she also looked at photographs made by Cindy Sherman, known for costuming herself and for shooting self-portraits “in character.” Von Mayrhauser tells me of a particular photo in which Sherman is crying and makeup is running down her face. “This is an image that I use.”
Early in her career, von Mayrhauser was the resident designer for the Circle Rep in New York, renowned for presenting the work of Lanford Wilson. This proved to be a good training ground for her current work with “Law and Order.” “Both were very realistic with new scripts, wonderful writing, and interesting characters.” She credits “Law and Order” with making her a better designer because the work has to be done very fast. “And yet everything has to be designed for the specific characters. Everything for this show passes through my hands.” The list of characters (the usual cast members as well as the numerous actors who appear for one specific episode) fills up a full sheet of paper. She has been with “Law and Order” for 15 years.
Her Broadway credits include 20 productions, most recently last season’s highly-acclaimed production of “Rabbit Hole” with Cynthia Nixon, and many Off-Broadway plays. For the latter, she was awarded an Obie for Sustained Excellence in Costume Design. She worked with Wendy Wasserstein throughout her career. Nominated for an Emmy Award in 1999 for her work on “Law and Order,” she was also honored by New York Women in Film and Television at their annual Designing Hollywood gala in 2003.
In spite of her busy work schedule, von Mayrhauser has managed to maintain a marriage of 25 years with actor/playwright Richard Cottrell. They have two daughters: Julia who is 24, a Vassar graduate now working for an art publishing company in London; and Lucy, 20, a student at Sarah Lawrence College.
For period costumes, like the ones she did for “The Bells” at McCarter, she makes carefully-drawn renderings of each costume. But for contemporary work, such as this production of “The Birthday Party,” she skips that part of the process. “I had worked on images. Then on the first day of rehearsal, I sat down with Emily and each of the actors individually and talked about our vision and had their input. That was our jumping off point.” She likes to gather quite a few clothing possibilities and “sculpt at a costume fitting.” Some items come from the theater’s costume collection. Some she found in thrift stores. “I shop everywhere from Saks Fifth Avenue to the Salvation Army, and everywhere in between. It’s fun.”
The Birthday Party, previews Friday through Thursday, September 8 through 14, opening night, Friday, September 15, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Drama by Harold Pinter $40 to $48. Through Sunday, October 15. 609-258-2787.