Despite being born into a family of theater enthusiasts, Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long ’69 took a winding path to the stage, one that led him first through the halls of the College of William and Mary.
In fact, when Long was selecting what school to attend and what to study, he wanted to avoid anything that his parents had done.
“My parents were both theater people,” Long said. “They had gone to Chapel Hill, they had met at the [University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill]; they were Carolina playmakers. So I was trying to avoid the family business, which was the theater, and the family school. I was a rebel, so my rebellion meant that I went to William and Mary.”
So, in 1965, Long arrived on campus with the intent of studying English. However, the aura of the College soon changed his mind about that.
“I originally thought I was going to major in English, but I majored in history,” Long said. “It’s pretty strong at William and Mary … All of us were just thrilled to be studying history in the cradle of American history. You know it sounds like I’m doing a Hallmark greeting card answer but it’s true.”
The cradle of American history was undergoing some big changes in the ’60s, as was much of the rest of the nation. Long recalls watching Williamsburg transform during his time here. When he arrived on campus, the town was still very much a quiet one.
“There was a post-World War II lull which hung sort of over the place from the ’50s and the 60s, and I think it’s one of the things that attracted me there,” Long said. “I thought, ‘It’s small, I’ll get to know everybody.’ I loved the architecture, I loved Colonial Williamsburg and I’m a liberal arts person through and through, so it seemed to me to be a perfect fit.”
Four years later, however, Long said the atmosphere had shifted. Williamsburg in 1969 was a town that had fully taken part in the politics of a turbulent nation.
“By the time I graduated we were in the Vietnam War and we were protesting and everything,” Long said. “I mean life started.”
According to Long, the magnitude of this shift in atmosphere was something that could only be seen in hindsight, but had a great impact on his education.
“We were constantly looking back [thinking], ‘Oh gosh, that wasn’t like it was when we came here in ’65, look how much has happened,’” Long said. “I graduated in ’69 when everybody was being drafted and it was quite the time … so I think that overshadowed the learning process.”
Of course Long’s time at the College was also defined by the usual factors: professors, activities and classmates. He was a member of the student council and a dorm manager, as well as an editor of the William and Mary Review, where he published several young writers and photographers who went on to become distinguished in their fields.
To further his interest in history, Long joined the Lord Botetourt Bibliographic Society, becoming president in his last semester. The club was a spinoff of the history department and, according to Long, consisted of a volunteer group of interested historians that met to discuss various topics, but not without the addition of a few beverages.
“We met in some classroom in the Swem library,” Long said. “It was a volunteer sort of group where we got together and I think drank. It was a very convivial way [of] interaction with the professors.”
Upon graduation from the College, Long found himself returning to his family tradition and attending Chapel Hill as a Samuel H. Kress teaching fellow to study art history with a focus on Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
While at Chapel Hill, Long stayed with family friend and playwright Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Under her influence, Long transferred to the Yale School of Drama, where Smith herself had studied, and finally surrendered to the family career.
“I don’t know if it was just through osmosis or just the reassuring support of my family, who’s in the theater, [saying] ‘Why don’t you take all this learning to the theater?’” Long said.
Long studied under acclaimed designer and professor Ming Cho Lee, and graduated with a major in set design. From there he immediately moved to New York in search of a mentor to guide him in his work.
“There still is this natural instinct of looking for mentors, and people to help guide you,” Long said. “In college, they are there; sometimes you are assigned to them, sometimes you discover [them]. You end up [finding] the people who are inspiring, inspiring teachers.”
For Long, Lee and Smith had served as mentors while at school, so he was looking for a new inspiration when he arrived in New York City.
“I was scared to death and I had read about the great couturier Charles James.” Long said. “He was alive and living at the Chelsea Hotel, so after graduation I moved there and stalked him and kept writing in that I wanted to work with him. It took six months of stalking until I finally worked with him, and then I was an unpaid assistant up until the day he died three and a half years later.”
By the time he lost his mentor, Long had already completed his first Broadway show as a costume designer. The play was titled “The Inspector General” and was directed by Romanian director Liviu Ciulei.
“The funny thing about that one was it was during a newspaper strike so there were no reviews, so in a way it never happened,” Long said. “Except for the Christian Science Monitor, the only review we got. It was a good review, but it didn’t mention the clothes so I just considered the whole thing a wash.”
Despite the false start, Long had indeed begun a highly successful career in costume design, one that would eventually earn him 15 Tony nominations and six wins.
Long’s first Tony win also happened to be his first nomination, for the musical “Nine.” The competition was tough that year, as the show was up against several well established musicals.
“It was very controversial, very competitive. We were the upstarts compared to the established ‘Dreamgirls,’” Long said. “It was quite the design assignment, making Fellini’s “8 1/2” come alive on stage no less. And I won against “Dreamgirls,” which was an extraordinarily designed, amazing production so, well it changed my life.”
Since then, Long has designed for productions such as “Guys and Dolls,” “Hairspray,” “Chicago,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Cabaret” and the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” Most recently, he completed work on his 75th show “On the Twentieth Century,” with Kristen Chenoweth, which earned him his 15th Tony nomination.
Though Long’s career has led him far from his original course of study, Long still uses the love and knowledge of history that he developed at the College in his role as designer for the United States’ oldest outdoor symphonic drama. “The Lost Colony” tells the mysterious story of Roanoke Island on the site where the old colony used to stand.
Long said he values the time he spent living and learning at the College.
“I’m pretty gung-ho about William and Mary,” Long said. “I really benefitted from my William and Mary experience.”