The Secret Life of Costumes Backstage: The Dresser’s Point of View
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A key person in this backstage choreography is the Dresser:
Meet Ann Bourassa
Ann fills the following two backstage roles at the National Arts Centre (NAC):
- Wardrobe Mistress: taking charge of all costume activity once the show has opened. That includes cleaning, maintaining costumes, taking care of logistics, and trouble-shooting.
- Dresser: keeping on the move backstage from the dressing rooms, to the wardrobe maintenance area, to stage right or stage left, to the quick change booth, ensuring all actor’s get into and out of the right costume for the right scene.
© National Arts Centre
Here’s a look at her day during the run of a show at the NAC:
“The show starts at 7:30 in the NAC Theatre, so I come in at 1:00 pm to do washing, ironing, steaming and any repairs to costumes that are needed. Buttons fall off, hems fall down, and zippers get stuck; I do the fix-ups.
“The next job is to put the costumes in the various dressing rooms, laying them out in order of use so that the actor doesn’t have to make any decisions about what comes next. At the same time I will “dress the room” making it tidy and pleasant for the actor who will arrive about an hour before the show begins.
“While I am going from dressing room to dressing room I separate the costumes that need to be set elsewhere and place them on the rack. Sometimes a piece of clothing is placed directly onstage, or needs to be in the quick-change booth. Since I can’t get on stage until 6:00 pm, those costumes will be pre-set after that time. (The pre-set is the placement of costume pieces or props either onstage or backstage before the audience arrives.)
“Next I have a supper break before the actors arrive because I’ll be very busy after that. When they arrive I move from dressing room to dressing room, helping actors with whatever they need. Period shows are obviously more work for me, but I like them best. Time really flies when you are lacing up corsets, buttoning shoes, helping with the layers of petticoats or hoop skirts. Actors may also be going to the Wig Room at that time, so it’s busy.
“Before the play begins, I’ll let the actors know where I’ll be during the show – so that I can be found easily in case I’m needed. I may be Stage Left or Stage Right depending on what’s required. On many shows, I’m on the move: I may be working Stage Right for one costume cue to Stage Right for another. Then I’ll have a quick change, then it’s back to the wardrobe. I’m always listening for my cues, and while I don’t hear all of the show, I feel very much a part of it.
“The quick changes are interesting. Our quick-change booth is a three-sided, hinged unit that folds flat. When it folds out, a small shelf pops up with a mirror above it. The actor may want make-up or a comb ready there. A lipstick will be ready to go; seconds are crucial. A complete change that includes wig, costume, and maybe a prop can be done in about twenty seconds, but the choreography for it has to be extremely precise. The Wig person would be there to help, and there could even be a sound person on hand if the actor is wearing a body microphone (mic). Everyone, including the actor, has to know exactly what to do and when. I’ve done simple costume changes in less time than that. I generally throw the costume coming off into a basket just outside the booth, and I’ve already arranged the new costume so that the actor can step right into it. We do quick-change rehearsals. Teamwork and cooperation can make everything run smoothly.
“After the show, I collect the costumes that need to be washed, and make sure that the others are hung up. Once this is finished I can go home. It’s a long day, but if the show keeps me busy with lots of cues and great costumes, time moves quickly.”
Some of the things that Ann especially likes about her job include:
"Actors who see you as part of the team; seeing old friends; complexity; really nice costumes; period costumes with corsets. I really like shows where I am totally busy – one cue after another is really fun. I'm more tired after a show with less to do than when I'm run off my feet. My other close collaborators are the Props person and the Assistant Stage Manager (who works closely with costumes in terms of communicating notes and keeping information flowing.)"
She also notes: "I'm the third generation in my family to work in show business!"