One of the many logistical challenges of live theatre, the costume quick change is a feat of teamwork, forethought, communication, and practice. A fully costumed actor exits the stage, changes clothes in a matter of seconds and re-enters, transformed. Often, quick changes involve an entire team of well-orchestrated professionals: actors, designers, and dressers. Though challenging, this is one of the many cases in which practice makes perfect.

Recently, producers of Singin’ in the Rain at the Marriott Theatre near Chicago decided to forgo recorded film clips while introducing audiences to the illustrious career of “Hollywood star” Don Lockwood, the musical’s lead character (immortalized by Gene Kelly in the 1952 film version). Instead, they wanted actor Danny Gardner to do it all — live. In the first five minutes of the show, Gardner had nearly 20 quick changes.

Having experienced his fair share of costume mishaps over the years — a harness that just wouldn’t connect in Mary Poppins (so much for flying) and a broken shoelace during the Broadway revival of Dames at Sea — Gardner stresses the importance of staying calm during quick changes. “The problem comes when you get worked up and you’re trying to do things really quickly instead of doing them efficiently,” Gardner said. “After a while, you get used to the change. But if you don’t have that time, just breathing — being in the moment instead of thinking what comes next — is key.”

How to Make a Costume Quick Change

Breathing techniques, of course, will only take you so far. To get Gardner through the opening of Singin’ in the Rain, his costumes were layered.  Instead of putting on a completely new outfit, layers of shirts, pants, or skirts can be shed or added, quickly transitioning an actor into a brand new look in seconds.

“It sounds outrageous,” Gardner admits, “but I under-layered three different costumes.”

From wearing a smoking jacket with tuxedo pants to being fully costumed as an 18th-century aristocrat, Gardner wore elements of multiple costumes all at once, removing and adding pieces throughout the opening.

Planning for a Costume Quick Change

Emily Goss, a wardrobe supervisor who has worked for more than a decade on multiple national tours, says that the logistics of a quick change should to be baked into a show from the beginning of a production process. “If you want an actor to change from an antebellum dress to a slinky tap number in 20 seconds,” Goss says, “then the director and the designer and the costume shop need to be talking about that from day one, so that the clothes are built with that in mind.”

Thoughtful costume design can reduce bulk and facilitate quick changes. Invisible zippers can be replaced with the more durable, traditional version, and shoelaces can be replaced with elastic. Velcro or snaps can be used instead of actual buttons to “quick rig” button-down shirts. Rachel Barnett, assistant professor of costume design and technology at Oklahoma City University, said that a costume can appear period and beautiful to the audience while also being carefully engineered for a quick change. “The outside of the garment looks right,” Barnett says, “but inner structures and closures in particular are often made simpler.”

And don’t take foundation garments for granted. They can make or break a quick change that might otherwise feel too intimate and uncomfortable. Barnett encourages every female student to invest in a pair of Spanx and a comfortable, flesh-colored bra. For men, briefs or boxer briefs are preferable to loose-fitting boxers, especially for period pieces.


How to Better Understand the Process

Try to spend at least one production, especially at the college or post-high-school level, working backstage. Like many crew roles, that of the dresser — the member of a show’s wardrobe crew designated to help an actor through a difficult quick change — is often unseen and gets little applause. A simple “thank you” can go a long way in establishing a positive relationship among costume designers, actors, and dressers.

Philadelphia-based actor Matteo Scammel stresses the importance of communication between actors and dressers. Before opening night, an actor and their dressers should be on the same page, and any potential problems related to a quick change should be addressed. I was doing a production of Other Desert Cities, and my dresser and I were both trying to stay out of each other’s way at first. This was not working! We both had to come at it together.”

As the actor, don’t do anything during the costume quick change unless the dresser gives you instructions. You need to be still and calm so the dresser and team can do their work. There’s a kind of choreography to the process and your job (as the actor) is likely to be still.

It is thrilling and rewarding to support an actor through a demanding quick change. Goss says, “For me, being a dresser or a part of wardrobe is the most visceral connection you can have to a show, apart from being an actor,” she said. “You affect that actor’s mindset. If they have a good 30 seconds offstage, then they are going to have a good first 30 seconds back onstage. They shouldn’t be thinking about whether or not their shoe is buckled. They should be thinking about who they are when they are out there.”  ♦

This is an edited version of the article that  appeared in the April 2017 print issue of Dramatics.

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