YOU’VE ENTERED on cue, delivered your lines, and earned a thunderous applause. But now you’ve got to do it again. In a different costume. And you only have 90 seconds to make your mark. 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.”

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. Layers of clothing can abbreviate a quick change. Instead of completely taking off one outfit and 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 underlayered three different costumes.”

At the top of the opening of Singin’ in the Rain, Gardner wore a smoking jacket with tuxedo pants then transitioned into the iconic plaid suit used for the musical number “Fit as a Fiddle” before finally being fully costumed as an 18th century aristocrat. He wore elements of all three costumes at once, removing and adding pieces throughout the opening.

Eighteenth century breeches and stockings were built for Gardner to wear beneath the plaid suit. Over the plaid suit, Gardner wore fake, half-length tuxedo pant legs attached with Velcro and hid everything else beneath a period-inspired smoking jacket. Gardner began the opening in the smoking jacket (the outer layer) and ended the opening in the bottom layer (the breeches and stockings).

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.

Barnett considers backstage work a form of choreography in its own right. “Every quick change is a little bit different,” she notes, “but we train our wardrobe to do things in a certain order.” Usually, this follows the way you’d normally get dressed.

Lindsay Keegan, who directs the competition dance team at Bravo Dance Center in Warminster, Pennsylvania, advises students to take inventory of all costume pieces before and after each performance. “Don’t just carry your belongings backstage and throw them in a pile,” she said. “You’ll never know which are yours!” Instead, she recommends using a small basket to keep costume pieces organized. This is especially helpful for large musical theatre numbers in which multiple matching costumes can be easily mistaken.

Barnett urges students to spend at least one production during their college career 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 also 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. Dressers are there to help, so actors should be candid about what they need. “Communicate with the director, the dressers, and the designer about what your needs are and what their expectations are,” Scammel advises. “You both have to attack the change. I was doing a production of Other Desert Cities at Walnut Street Theatre, 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.”

Barnett tells her actors, “Don’t do anything — unless we give you a specific job to do, such as unbuttoning your shirt while we’re working on your shoes. We really want you to say still and be calm. Don’t fight the dressers or try to do things yourself, especially if it’s already choreographed.”

Goss agrees. “It’s the job of a dresser or a team of dressers to figure out a quick change,” she said. “A lot of times, the first time you run a change, it doesn’t work. But an actor should trust the people that they are working with to figure it out, because they will. If they need more dressers or fewer dressers or to be on the other side of the stage — whatever it is, it will get worked out.”

For Goss, it is thrilling and rewarding to support an actor through a demanding quick change. “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 when they leave the stage. If they have a good 30 seconds offstage, then they are going to have a good first 30 seconds 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 story appeared in the April 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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