Interview with Jeff Hendry
A Conversation with Costume Designer Jeff Hendry
By Katie White
Jeff Hendry is a Professor of Performing Arts at Rockford University in Illinois. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, he earned his undergraduate degree in theatre production at the University of Arizona, followed by his master of fine arts in costume design at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Jeff has worked at a multitude of regional theatres across the country throughout his professional career, including New London Barn Playhouse, Old Globe Theatre, and Tennessee Williams Arts Center. This will be Jeff’s first season with Maine State Music Theatre, designing costumes for Sister Act, which runs June 24-July 11, and The Music Man, July 15-August 1.
MS: Did you always plan to get into Costume Design?
JH: No, I wanted to be an actor – everybody wants to be an actor – and then I had to take the obligatory Costume Design class and realized, “Wow, I can do this, and there won’t be as much competition.”
MS: How does MSMT’s production of Music Man compare to the last time you designed the show?
JH: It is much bigger. This was done in a much bigger scale. When I did it last, I did it for a dinner theater in Rock Island, Illinois. It was a typical dinner theater–sized cast, you know, scaled down, so this production is kind of on steroids in comparison.
MS: Taking on such a beloved, classic show like The Music Man is no easy task. Where do you get started?
JH: That’s a good question. Well, I go back to the original stuff – I looked at the Robert Preston Movie, then I looked at the Matthew Broderick, and I revisited the show when I last did it, now – god, 13 years ago. As a designer you change, things become more important, you see different things. My goal, and something that Marc Robin [Director, Music Man] said to me was, “It’s Iowa,” that type of thing but, “I don’t want to see ‘dirt’ – I want to see the sparkle, I want to see life,” but there’s that fine line – this show isn’t Hello, Dolly. These are real people, in a real town. So to find that balance of theatricality and reality so that they don’t look like they’re wearing costumes, but it looks more real. That’s where I really started on this was, “How can I give this show a reality?” I think – you know being an academic, I overanalyze things but – this is a small town too. People are going to be able to relate to that small town “everybody knows everybody” type of feel in this show, so they’re going to know what’s real. I mean there’s the time period, but if there’s a feeling of artifice it’s not going to work. So trying to find that bumped–up level that is theatrical and idiosyncratic, for all of these different people, that’s where I started.
MS: Now it’s similar with Sister Act. Everyone knows the movie so well, how do you tackle that one?
JH: The movie is really the jumping off point for this one. I was sort of like, “What’s happening here?” YouTubing everything, ordering the Broadway souvenir program, to see how they handled it. Obviously, it’s not what I’m actually going to do in my design, but with that show you have so much less latitude – they’re nuns. And you know, it’s Sister [sic] of Angels Convent so there are the different logos and designs, and you’ve got a parameter. So if this is what they did on Broadway, I can’t do that, so how do I work within this very, very constructed parameter and make it unique?
I did some major color shifts. I, quite frankly, just didn’t like what they did on Broadway for the finale. For some reason, Deloris is totally lost in the middle of it, so I switched it around – and again you have very limited colors you can work with – so I threw in way more red in the finale than there was on Broadway so it has a little bit more punch in it. And, I have to include this – I have never put more sequins on stage than I have in this show. I just cannot believe the yardage of sequin fabric we have used – it is upwards of 250 yards of sequin fabric. I mean I’d go in to the store and they’d ask how many yards and I’d be like, “Do you have two bolts of it? I need a hundred yards.”
MS: That is phenomenal, talk about wow–factor! Now, what were the first conversations with Marc Robin and Donna Drake like when you were deciding what direction to take?
JH: Donna [Director, Sister Act] and I talked, and right then she was working on something else so I knew the show better at that point. She said “Just do what you think is right.” I mean, it’s Sister Act, there are not that many choices to make. I’d just say, “Will these changes work for you?” and she was fine.
With Music Man, we were wide open. Marc and I spent a lot of time talking, as much as his schedule allows, about what direction we wanted to take. I have never designed a show that was intended to be a rental package. I’m used to, “Here’s your cast, here’s your show – do it.” So in talking with Amy Mussman [MSMT Costume Rentals], she’d say we’re going to need extra this or that. A lot of times, knowing there were going to have to be altered hems, altered finish, I consciously kept in mind, “don’t do lace borders on the edge that can’t be let down”, or other things that I might do if it were just, “this is the show – go for it” instead of a rental package. So that was a little different from my normal process of designing. But other than that it was just, start doing research, start drawing!
MS: Are there any kind of unique touches that will let us know, this is Jeff Hendry’s design?
JH: The thing that I’m really kind of known for is using a lot of different patterns and textures; like if you were to go over the Pick–a–Little Ladies, most of them have at least 5 or 6 fabrics and maybe 5 or 6 trims in one dress. It sounds like a crazy quilt but it gives a sense of depth and texture to the piece. Looking at it from the stage, if you look at a regular period dress and put it on the stage it’s going to look dead, it’s going to look flat. So how do you get that detail and texture that you see up close in a period dress, from a distance? By using different types of patterns you can get that level of detail that those period clothes had up close, but from a distance. They [MSMT Costumes] were kind of flipping out when I’d say, “this goes with this, and this goes with this, and layer these two laces over that for this,” but that’s really my trademark.
MS: So did you do a lot of research in the era?
JH: Oh yeah, I mean that’s where any designer starts once you get past the concept of the show. I mean, same thing with Sister Act. I literally went online and found an ecclesiastical place that manufactures the clothing for nuns and was looking at all of the different things that they make thinking, “Okay, what does it actually look like?” and then, “How do you alter it for theatricality?” I mean there’s all different types of nuns and which type do you want? Then allowing for what they have to do theatrically. So I sent the costume shop a little visual of a nun with little arrows pointing out what all of the different pieces were called and said, “So that we’re all on the same page with the vocabulary, here’s a nun reference sheet.” That’s where you have to start.
MS: So with Sister Act, how would you go about livening up those habits and robes, making them more exciting for the stage?
JH: You can’t make them more exciting, but what you do is you make them more mobile, more workable for the actors and actresses so they can do what they need to do. For example, the question came down – do we want to do it in poly, do we want to do it in wool? I talked to Amy and she said, “Do you have a preference?” and I said, “Wool, a lightweight wool, it’s going to move better,” so we’re finding the lightweight wool that’s going to move right.
That’s huge for me – the movement of the costume is just as important as when they stand there. If the nun stuff is so stiff, if the habits don’t move, or if things don’t have a proper weight to them and they don’t feel substantial, the audience is going to notice that just as much as they would if it were the wrong period. They might not be able to say what it is, but something seems wrong to them. These are the kind of discussions we went through just deciding – what do we want to build the habits out of? And the coif, the tight headpiece that goes over – what do we make that out of? It’s got to be washable, and it has to be fairly light so they can hear through it.
In talking to the director I said, “I’m going to give you this piece of advice, they need to wear those from absolutely the first day because the last thing you want is for dress rehearsal to come, they put them on and they go, ‘I can’t hear anything!’”. I’ve done enough nun shows to know better. The first Sound of Music I did, they came in and said, “I can’t hear, I can’t hear,” and then you have some very angry actresses. So I said, “Make sure day one they are wearing those, so then they get used to what they’re hearing.”
MS: Where does the process begin to start building once you have your design idea? Being away from the theatre you’re working with must pose some challenges.
JH: Well first, going out and buying fabrics. That’s way more involved than what people think. [Being away] doesn’t make as much difference because in Chicago I have many more options and much more access than I would here. But the issue is finding the right feel for the pattern, the right weight. Then I was packing it all up, including the rendering, with arrows from swatches to the picture to show where it all belongs. You can go over [to MSMT Costume Rentals] and see what they all look like, it’s kind of scary – they’ve got swatches stapled all over with arrows going through.
While I was fabric shopping, they had the designs, so they were able to start doing the pattern, that way once the fabric shows up they can start cutting it out. Then we had Skype conversations about the designs like to say, “Okay, what is this – is it pleat, is it gather?” those type of things. That was a little difficult long–distance. We have over 50 individual dresses and to go through every single one individually, Skyping it, was over several 3–hour sessions. That was a bigger challenge, when I’m holding up my picture on one end pointing, making sure I’m on camera, and they’re matching it up to theirs.
MS: Now are there any quirky touches in the costumes that may not be obvious to the audience?
JH: Oh! There is one little “inside joke” in this show – and I’m the only one who knows about it I haven’t even explained it to the people in the costume shop:
Years ago, I was doing a show and I had ordered this awful daisy trim. It was for an ensemble number and I had ordered like 60 yards of it, and it didn’t show up, didn’t show up, and I found out it was backordered. Four minutes after the show was over, it shows up. So I had 60 yards of this daisy trim. I have been using it up over the years, and I donated the last bit of the daisy trim to this production – there’s a daisy dress in the show. So Ethel Toffelmier is going out in a daisy dress. I mean not huge, but there’s the little bit of daisy trim, a little nod, and it’s now gone – it’s finally gone! It’s been in probably 8 or 9 different shows, just trying to use it up – a little bit here, a little there.
MS: What’s your favorite costume set you’ve designed?
JH: Oh god, I knew you would ask me that. There are two, and for totally different reasons. One, I would say probably my all–time favorite, the show that I am most proud of, is Grand Hotel. I did that at both Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana and it transferred to Drury Lane Watertower. Because those have to be clothes, they cannot be costumes. The audience can easily be fooled by costumes. Throw a bunch of sequins and feathers at them and they’ll say, “Oh it’s wonderful!” but if it has to look like real, authentic, period clothing, you cannot disguise that. I mean it’s got to have the sort of “Downton Abbey” feel about it. I wanted to design that show for years and word was out in Chicago, “If anyone gets this show, call me or I’m gonna be really, really angry.” Then, I had to be in Italy a couple months before the show went in to manufacturing; I had designed it, but it hadn’t quite gone to shop yet. So I was able to do some of the actual fabric and trim shopping in Italy.
The other show, similar experience, Pericles, a not very well–known Shakespeare play, and the whole thing is, he travels to all of these different countries that were existent in Shakespeare’s time but we don’t know today, like Antioch and Mytilene. They’re actually all places in the Middle East at that time, but nobody knows what they are now. So I said, “How can I make these countries individual?” and they became these different exotic places, like one was Saigon and one was Mongolia, and I had all these different places. Then I was actually traveling through Asia the summer before I did the show so I was able to buy a ton of the fabric – actual, the real stuff – in Asia, and ship it back. Having that experience, and not having to go to JoAnn’s or some other place like that to find fabric that’s kind of like what you want, but instead being able to use the real stuff is a real luxury.
MS: Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
JH: Gardening. Which is really going to be a bummer for me this year, because I’ll be gone all summer. That’s kind of my decompression thing to go out and dig in the dirt for a while.
MS: It’s always good to have those kind of laborious hobbies where you can see the results from your work. I suppose Costume Design is kind of the same way, though – you see that finished product on stage.
JH: Yeah exactly, but you know – that’s work. You have to get away from it at some point. People always ask me, “Oh, do you make your own clothes?” and I’m like – no, I don’t even alter them!
MS: I know you’ve worked quite a bit with Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark [MSMT Artistic Director] in the past. Being reunited with them both here at MSMT, does that have sort of a homecoming feeling even though you’re new to this theatre?
JH: Well yes and no, because we always reconnect over the years. We had a really intense period where we were always working together, constantly for six years, and then that theatre closed down, they sold it to Walmart and Marc moved, but when they’ve come back to Chicago for projects, I’ve worked with them both there. There’s always been this sort of connection every so often, so it’s a sense of homecoming but it’s also a sense of “oh great to see you again!” as if nothing’s changed.
That is what is bizarre to me though, the longevity, and the way our career paths have taken us all over. I’ve stayed there, I’ve been teaching for 33 years, mostly because I’ve got the great freelance career in Chicago, and then they’ve gone all over but I just kind of pop in here and there and our paths continue to cross.