Over the years, I have known that I wanted to have a career in the theatre, but I was uncertain as to exactly what that career would be. I have had many incredible opportunities; I was an intern to a Stage Manager on the Broadway revival of Gypsy with Patti Lupone and an intern on the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera. I briefly attempted singing and acting as an ensemble member of a workshop for a new musical headed for Broadway. (“headed for” is important. It didn’t make it). I interned for a sound designer in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre. I was a dresser for a number of years. Now I have recently (and finally) found what seems to be my “home” in casting. If my pursuits seemed random, you might say that the constant thread is the fact that I steadily pursued jobs in the theater (except that one time when I tried being a vegan chef).
My longest experience in one career path was as a dresser. It was also one of the most fun. I started one summer between my junior and senior year of college. Let me back up a bit in case you don’t know the specifics of what a dresser in the theatre does. Generally, a dresser is assigned to one or more actors whom they dress every night. They are responsible for pre-setting all of the costumes that the actors will need throughout the show, making sure that the costumes are in good shape (no rips, buttons falling off, etc), making sure the actor is comfortable and ready to perform, and assisting with any mid-show costume changes. My first job was as a swing dresser for The Phantom of the Opera. A swing learns many different wardrobe “tracks” in the event that a permanent dresser is sick or goes on vacation. As a dresser you need to a) stay out of the way of moving sets and fast moving people, and b) try to make everything as seamless for the actors as possible. This can be particularly challenging if you are doing a different track every night. I worked at Phantom for the duration of that summer, learning 9 out of 16 tracks in the show.
After college, I returned to the city and went back to dressing. I continued to dress at Phantom and also began subbing in wardrobe at Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, two completely different experiences. Going between those two shows was a trip. One night I might be helping someone get into a giant dress with a corset and a big bustle and the next I’d be zipping someone into a skin-tight spider suit.
After Spiderman closed, I was asked to work on the revival of Cabaret as a full-time dresser. This was my first time not only having my own track, but creating it from scratch. I dressed the character Fraulein Kost throughout the entire show, helping other dressers with quick changes at various points as well. My time at Studio 54 was truly incredible. Watching Alan Cumming return to the role that made him famous was an experience I’ll never forget, not to mention making lifelong friends with such an amazing group of coworkers.
One of the things I love most about being a dresser are the fun traditions you create. Because the job requires you to do to the exact same sequence of events every night at the same time with the same people, you start to develop jokes and rituals with different people backstage. Every night after the call for places, Alan would come down the stairs in his Emcee costume and do pull ups on the stairs in front of us. When he walked by he would say the same phrase to the actors as he passed them, wishing them good luck. In the first act as one actor ran by to enter his scene, he would do a different kind of dance, entertaining those of us who were waiting for our next cue. At the end of the first act, when the actor that I dressed left her scene from one side of the stage and walked to enter at another side, she would get high fives from everyone she met on her path to her next entrance. On her final night, we arranged to have a huge line of people waiting to high five her. She wasn’t able to make it through that scene with dry eyes.
One of my favorite traditions was during act two with my friend and floormate Danny who played Herr Schultz. Every night we (he) would come up with a joke of some sort and we would greet our other floormates Aaron (Ernst Ludwig) and Gayle/Hani (Fraulein Kost) as they exited the stage. Our jokes would range from full on skits to just wearing signs on our clothes. Any pieces of paper required for these jokes were later taped onto one of the dressing room doors on our floor. It turned into quite a work of art.
I always say they should sell tickets to be backstage during a show instead of in front of the stage because that’s really where the magic happens. Dressers are just one group of so many incredible people that are crucial in making the experience of going to the theatre magical.