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In Conversation: Costume Designer Alex Jaeger

Charles Haugland (dramaturg): You spoke at our first rehearsal about how the play just leapt off the page for you. Why?

Alex Jaeger (costume designer): Joshua Harmon doesn’t say exactly where this family’s apartment is in the play – but there were clues about where it is in comparison to other parts of the city and street names in the vicinity. I figured out that it’s the neighborhood in Paris where my family lived during World War II, and up until very recently. My family had so many stories of life there during the war that I grew up with – and also many of our neighbors and their friends. So I knew a lot about the history in this particular neighborhood of Paris, and recently I’ve been doing my genealogy and I took a DNA test. I found out that in addition to French, I’m also Moroccan and Algerian, which is the family lineage of our patriarch in the script. So that was interesting, too. I’ve been starting to learn about French Algerian history.

How did you find your way into designing the play? What was your process like?I had a lot of conversations with Loretta. We’ve worked on a lot of ‘modern day’ plays, and she’s always very much focused on the small details of the character, and also the time and place. 2016 was very different, looks-wise, from every state in America as well as every country. She wanted to make sure we got the French and the 2016 and then the period stuff is always a little bit easier because it’s not as diverse as we are now. The clothing was a little bit more regimented and I was able to do research on that. Then it was more about figuring out what each particular character’s style would be.

Tell us about the differences you see in the way the French approach fashion. 

I like to watch HGTV. And pretty much the only thing anybody cares about in America is having a closet that’s the size of a room. In France, for the most part, people live in houses or apartments that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, and they don’t have closets at all or very little closet space. Your room has a wardrobe, and so people will buy many fewer clothes. You switch your clothes out for the seasons with this limited space – so everybody buys really good quality clothing and very basic pieces that you can mix and match. Then you accessorize with beautiful scarves, jewelry, hats, purses and shoes. That’s where all the chic-ness comes in: the accessories.

Talk about what you’ve learned since getting in the room with the actors – both the rehearsal room and the fitting room. What is that like?With this cast, we’ve all been on the same page right from the start; they were really excited by the ideas in the renderings on the first day. Then comes the actual work of taking the actor from who they are as a person, to who they need and want to be as a character. So it’s all the details from haircuts, makeup, jewelry. I generally buy lots and lots and lots of clothes, especially for modern day – because, as anybody who’s gone shopping for a pair of jeans knows, it’s not easy even when you’re buying for yourself. It’s doubly hard when you’re trying to buy for somebody else, especially somebody you don’t know. We buy lots of options; we try them on in the fitting room and stuff becomes pretty clear right away what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. Then of the things that work, hopefully we have more options than we need. So we take photos, and then I bring them to the director and we sit down with all the photos and they say, “Oh, I love this one. Oh, I’m not sure about this one. Can we hold on to it and see what it looks like on stage in tech? And then if not, let’s switch it to this one.” And so we come up with a game plan, but it keeps changing and it’s in flux until opening night really.

Can we delve more into your French connections? Introduce us to your family’s lineage

My family’s been in France for a very, very long time. I’ve been doing my genealogy as part of my pandemic mental health. So far I’ve gotten back to 1370. So they’ve been around at least that long! A lot of my relatives were also Belgian, but then came to France. My more immediate family: my grandmother was born there in 1899, and my grandfather was born in Belgium actually, and moved there a little bit after. So they had been living in Paris for a long time.

They lived in the third arrondissement and my grandfather was a lawyer. He had a lot of Jewish clients, and they knew a lot of Jewish people. The Jewish Quarter at the time was the fourth arrondissement just adjacent to it, and that’s actually where his office was. And he helped some of his clients to get their assets and their families to safety when the Nazis were coming.

Then for the occupation of Paris, like many people, my family fled the city in a car. They were lucky to have a car. Many people had to walk and they went down to Lourdes and then to Vichy. But then everybody realized that it was pointless. So they went back. But the Nazis had taken their home in the third arrondissement, and a Jewish family that had lived in the fourth that my grandfather had helped, gave them the apartment in the fourth. So they were living essentially in a Jewish neighborhood during the Nazi occupation, which my mom said was terrifying. I mean, there were shootings and they could hear knockings on the door at night to take people away; it was really scary.

But it was also a strange situation there because some Jewish people were able to live there. My mom dropped out of school or schools were closed. So she got a job working in a perfume store that mostly catered to Nazi soldiers – because they’re the only ones that had money to spend and they wanted to send French perfume back home to their girlfriends in Germany. One of her co-workers was a Jewish girl, and a lot of the Nazis wouldn’t allow her to wait on them. But others were fine. She and her family were living in Paris and it was very strange. Eventually, it got pretty dicey for that family. And my mom actually gave her friend, her friend’s name was Ida, my mom gave her her papers and they switched the photographs on it so that she could leave the country.

But our next door neighbor was an old man who stayed and was left alone for the most part. So you just never knew.

We meet this particular family in the play in this post-liberation of Paris, trying to restart things in France. You were talking about your family’s own experience in the fashion world of trying to restart after the war. Will you talk about that?

Yes– just because the city was liberated, that didn’t mean there was anything coming in. There was still no food. My family had been fairly wealthy before the war. Yet my mom would say sometimes the entire family of four would have an onion for dinner that they boiled – and this was a wealthy family. So you can imagine the poor families. You would have to buy stuff on the black market or go out to the country, ride your bicycle 30 miles to go get some eggs from somebody who had chickens. So there really was nothing; the electricity and the gas were very spotty.

The fashion industry had been the top-money-making industry in France before the war – and so the government was very interested in restarting the couture business. But there was no fabric available. They worked with amazing artists: Jean Cocteau, the film director, was involved, and Salvador Dali or somebody – they painted these little sets, very surrealist sets. They had toymakers and model makers create little figurines. They had wigs with real hair, and all of the fashion designers in France made their collections on these tiny, tiny little dolls, and they sent them all over the world. There was a whole crew that had to go to reset the doll’s hair every day and set up the things; people would come, and it was like a touring fashion show. People would place orders based on these little dolls. The hope was that by the time the orders came in, and the money started coming in, that they’d be able to get the fabric and actually produce the garments. And it worked out! It was pretty ingenious, I thought. Some of them still exist, and there’s a book about them with extraordinary photographs. The country was just trying to figure out ways to rebuild.

Contemporary for a moment – you wore a Charlie Hebdo shirt to the first day of rehearsal. A landmark moment around the world; what did it mean to you?

I knew of the magazine, but during my own activist years, it wasn’t in publication. I heard about it when I was a kid, and I knew a little bit about it, but it hadn’t made much of an impact on me. And then they started publishing again. I would see their interesting, provocative cartoons now and then. But the latest attack, sadly, was not the only one. Over the years, they’ve had multiple attacks, each time, it would stir up lots of political feelings in France on both sides.

That last attack really seemed to get people, it felt global. People all over the world started protests and marches. That’s when I started researching back to the beginning of the publication and was just shocked and dismayed that there hasn’t really been that much progress made; or there’s progress and then a lot of backsliding.

That’s what this play addresses: backsliding. 2016: how is it that we’re in the same situation that they’re in in 1939? Mirrored all over the world. I mean, the character of Molly coming from America, it’s the same situation in America, in Russia. I think that’s why people feel so strongly about it now, because it’s not just another country. It’s like it’s happening to me and it’s happening to these people over here – and so I have that empathy with them.

Can you talk a little bit more about working with Loretta? This show is the first she’s directed at the renovated historic theatre, and the kickoff of her first full season that she programmed. A big moment! When did you first start working with Loretta? 

I want to say it was … 1999, maybe? It was just a chance meeting. I was designing a show at South Coast Repertory Theatre near LA, and Loretta was in the Artistic Director’s office talking about a project that she had coming up. She was living in New York at the time, and they wanted her to hire local designers. She didn’t really have anybody, and I literally walked by the door. The artistic director said, “Hey, you come here!” We sat down; we talked and we just had fun. There was a connection! So Loretta said, “Okay, let’s do it.” The play was Nilo Cruz’s Two Sisters and a Piano. Then shortly after, we did another production of the same play at the Public in New York. Since then we’ve worked together at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco; a ton of shows at the Magic while she was Artistic Director there; at Miami New Drama. Gosh, where else? Over the years, all over the place.

What is unique about Loretta as a director? What makes your process together different?

Loretta has a real vocabulary for visuals – and also is able to clearly communicate her ideas about concept and abstract ideas. There are a lot of directors who use words that don’t mean what they think it means, leading to frustration and miscommunication there. But she’s so clear – prepared yet still open. I mean, she’s never like, “this is what I want. Go do it.” There’s such a great collaboration, I totally trust her because she has such a good eye for design and color and knows what’s right for the character.

So she’s the puppet master, but she actually really knows about all the areas, which is rare. Over the years, I can almost guess what she’s going to like and what she’s not. There are a lot of things that come in and I just reject them, like, don’t even show that to Loretta. So that’s really nice and fun. She’s great at milking every moment and emotion and thought out of a script. So it’s not just working with her in my area, but it’s always this extraordinary product that we can all be proud of at the end.

Do you have a favorite project that comes to mind?

With our first show together, Two Sisters and A Piano, that was such a lovely, gorgeous production. And I have had a lifelong connection to the amazing Nilo Cruz, which is not a bad thing, and with Loretta. I loved all the stuff we did that the Magic because it was a lot of new works, and with those, you get to actually help develop the characters and what they’re going to be going forward in future productions. I worked with extraordinary playwrights there – and then she also did a legacy project of Sam Shepard works, so we got to explore those. Sam Shepard actually came and was there for some stuff, so it’s been pretty incredible, just the connections that she has and the way that I think artists of all calibers feel safe in her hands and that their work is safe and they want to participate. So it was like, everybody would just say yes and come and participate or just show up for opening. So it was just great to be around all these amazing talents through her. So many of the projects were special for different reasons.

I’m so excited that Loretta is here. I can’t wait to see what direction she helps steer The Huntington in for this post-pandemic part of its life. I think it’s going to be really fun and exciting,     and I just hope I get to come back and be part of something else here.