Cynthia Rowley Goes Off Broadway
Why the fashion designer joined The New Group’s “The Good Mother”
With her work on Off-Broadway play The Good Mother, famed fashion designed Cynthia Rowley is revisiting a crossroads from her life.
“There was a time when I first moved to New York when I kind of wanted to do costumes,” Rowley says. “I actually one time talked to [costume designer] Ann Roth on the phone, and I was so in awe of her—I’m still in awe of her—and I thought, ‘Maybe I could go be her apprentice or something.’ That’s one of those fork-in-the-road moments where I had to figure it out. One or the other.”
Rowley went on to do pretty well for herself—to put it mildly—designing everything from women’s wear to fragrance. Now, she’s responsible for making Gretchen Mol look convincing as a barely-getting-by single mother in The New Group’s latest production, written by Francine Volpe and directed by Scott Elliott.
Rowley wasn’t looking for “extra credit” activities when Elliott approached her, but ultimately, she couldn’t resist the chance. “I was drunk on Scott Elliott!” she says with a laugh. More seriously, she adds, “It was just for love of Scott and The New Group and Gretchen Mol. That was what immediately convinced me. Also, I knew it wasn’t a huge period piece with hundreds of actors. It’s a small cast and contemporary wardrobe. I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was definitely not a lot of building of costumes.”
She downplays her contributions to the project, claiming that “all the credit goes to the actors and their performances. I just think that’s what gives anything life.” But her unerring eye led her to clothes that immediately place the characters, from Salvation Army sweaters to old boots that she washed and dried in her own laundry room. Perhaps the hardest part of her job was de-glamming Gretchen Mol. From a colorful silk kimono that proves how out-of-touch with her reality she is to a “date outfit” that reveals the character’s idea of sexiness, Rowley’s work offers flashes of insight into a woman who is a master at avoiding her true self.
The project also gave the designer a fresh insight on collaboration. When she mounts a fashion show, she’s the one at the top, making final decisions, but on The Good Mother, she’s part of the team.
“It was great because I realize how it is for people I work with, too, where they’re contributing,” she says. She admits that she occasionally found herself wanting to offer Elliott some friendly staging advice. “There were a few times when I was kind of like, ‘You know, I like when she tripped over the coffee table. I thought it kind of showed…’ No! Don’t say anything!”
With her first production under her belt, Rowley says she’d be up for more (though she admits that in the thick of it, she might have answered that question differently). “I would never want to feel like, ‘Doo-doo-doo, I’m going to my job, making some clothes, time for the spring collection!’ I like to do all kinds of things, like wetsuits and Band-Aids and stuff like that because it’s part of the enjoyment of the creative process. Anything that makes you able to enjoy the creative process!”
Mark Peikert is N.Y. Bureau Chief at Backstage Magazine
Photo of Gretchen Mol by Serge Nivelle