Costumes are crucial to any show. Costume quick-change is key, but screenwriters occasionally leave only a short amount of time to transition from one to the next—sometimes not even enough for the actor to get to the dressing room and back.
In cases like these, you’ll need to design a smooth costume quick-change. Here’s how.

8 Steps to a Successful Costume Quick-Change

1. Read the whole script
Hopefully, you’ve already done this! Reading the script is also the first step to any good costume design. Look for any mention of clothing in dialogue or stage directions. Some quick changes are important plot points and will be obvious. But others might only be implied: for example, back-to-back scenes in which a character has very different costume needs.

Don’t look at scenes in isolation—it’s critical to imagine how characters will flow from one scene to the next. How much dialogue will you have for the quick-change to occur? What do you know about the blocking and choreography, and how much time will it take? Is it just one character who needs a fast costume change, or several? Also consider that a character may need to remain on stage even after their last line.

Attend a readthrough or rehearsal (even if you’re still early in the production schedule) to have a better understanding of the scene’s pacing, as well as the actor’s physical needs. You might even time the section of the script.

2. Talk with the director
The quick-change should align with the rest of the show, and your director—who’s involved in every part of the production—will have that perspective. Ask them the following:
● Will the quick-change occur on stage, or off?
● What else is happening on stage at the time?
● What else is happening in the wings at the time?
● Are there on-stage effects (such as lighting or smoke) that will affect the change, either by hiding it or making it more difficult to navigate?
● How are microphones going to be involved?
● Will hair style or wigs also need to be changed?

Your director can help you more fully understand the bigger picture—and you can help them understand what a realistic time frame is for the change.

3. Costume with the quick-change in mind

If possible, your quick-change should be a major factor as you’re designing the relevant costumes. Start with the costume being changed into (i.e., the second being worn). How will the actor put it on, and will they need help from crew members? It obviously needs to go on quickly and may need to be hidden underneath or behind the first costume. Likewise, your crew must be able to remove the first costume quickly, then set it to the side.

One solution could be layers. Can the actor wear the second costume (or at least some elements of it) underneath the first? Removing items is usually faster than putting them on, especially if you make use of “rigging” like snaps (see number 6) or fabrics designed to tear away.

4. Minimize the items being changed
The fewer items being changed, the faster the quick-change will be. Here are a few tips for limiting the number of articles you’ll need to change:
● Combine pieces by sewing them together: This limits the number of pieces being moved and the hands needed. Elsa’s famous “Let it Go” quick-change in Frozen is made possible by her coronation costume being just one piece, rather than a separate skirt, bodice and long-sleeved shirt. (Elsa’s second outfit is also underneath her first, as suggested in number 3.)
● Keep some items the same: Choose shoes, pants, undershirts, etc., that can be used in both costumes. This will save you, the actors, and the crew time and stress.
● Use wigs: Natural hair—with bobby pins, hair ties, ribbons, and sweat—can be extremely difficult to manipulate quickly. If your actor needs to change hair styles or color, wig changes can achieve the same look from the audience with less fuss.

5. Ensure modesty for the actor
Don’t forget the actor! This is a no-brainer if the quick-change is happening on stage as part of the show. But you should also consider modesty if the change is happening off stage. Some actors may have no qualms about changing in the wings in front of other actors and crew members, but you should check to ensure their comfort.

You could have the actor wear skin-colored underclothing (such as camisoles or bike shorts) or a leotard to help them feel more comfortable. You should also set up some time to have the actor meet and talk with the crew members who will be helping them.

6. Design the quick rig
Once you have your costumes and a plan, it’s time to add the “quick rig”: any modifications you need to make to the pieces to facilitate the quick-change. These usually take the form of fasteners that allow pieces to come off more quickly.

Each type of fastener has its benefits:
● Velcro is fast, but loud when removed.
● Snaps are fast and quieter than velcro but can tear fabric if not sewn on properly.
● Buttons are quieter and slower still and may be visible to the audience.
● Zippers are fast and quiet but could become caught mid-zip, hindering the rest of the change.
● Magnets are quick, fast, and discrete. But they may come undone at inopportune times, such as during choreography.
● Hook and eye fasteners hold well but are difficult to fasten quickly.
Decide which works best for the costume pieces and quick-change and make the needed alterations.

7. Organize and choreograph the crew
Just like action on stage, you’ll need to choreograph who goes where and does what during a quick-change. Planning this out ahead of time will prevent something not being fastened or a piece being dropped.

Part of your planning should involve “props” for those helping with the change. Lights are often dim backstage, so small flashlights for crew members can help everyone see better. And all crew members should have an apron with emergency items in case something goes wrong: safety pins, bobby pins, extra fabric, and body tape.

As you’re planning the quick-change’s movements, resist the urge to have the actor do too much. Their focus should be on the scene just before or after, not on the mechanics of the quick-change. In most cases, the actor can help the most by letting the crew do their work.

8. Practice!
Quick-changes are difficult to execute. Practice makes progress, which leads to perfection! Run the change at different speeds and levels of light—slowly at first and in full light, then faster and in lighting closer to the show’s. It may take you up until opening night to work it out. But keep at it and check in with your crew about ways you can improve. 

Andrew Koch is a writer and editor from Cincinnati. He thanks his wife (who, as a costumer for a production of Beauty and the Beast, got Belle’s quick-change down to 37 seconds) for her help with this article.

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