Brodwayblogspot.com brings you the wonderful Elizabeth Floyd. Elizabeth spent years on Broadway working as a wardrobe dresser! Here she give us the scoop on what a wardrobe dresser does, how you can become a dresser in New York and the inside scoop on the skill set that this job requires.
Elizabeth is also unique in the fact that she got her graduate degree whilst still working on Broadway and has transitioned out of the business.This Q & A is also a unique look on balancing working behind-the-scenes and looking for a new career.
BB: Can you explain what a wardrobe dresser’s job is?
Elizabeth: Most people think that dressers build the costumes. This is not correct – the costumes are made by the costume shops and turned over to the wardrobe department when the show opens. The wardrobe department is then responsible for making sure the costumes look the way the designer intended, for the entire run. Dressers make sure the correct actor is wearing the correct costume (correctly!), at the correct time, in the correct place. Easy, right?!
BB: Can you explain what a “dresser track” is?
Elizabeth: Dressers are assigned to certain tasks and usually, certain actors. That generally means that a dresser will manage the laundry rotation, prep work on the actors’ costumes, and set up quick changes as needed. But dressers can’t always stay with the same actors the entire show, and need to help out where needed. So once a show is up and running, dressers have a set pattern of where they go, whom they help, and when – this become their track. When a “swing” dresser comes into the show, they learn the specific tracks. A swing dresser is a substitute who fills in when the regular dresser is unable to work.
BB: What Broadway shows have you worked on?
Elizabeth: Oh gosh, there are so many! I started on “The Scarlet Pimpernel” as a swing in 1999, then got a full time track on “Footloose” shortly thereafter. Then “The Music Man,” “Aida,” “Jane Eyre the Musical,” “Oklahoma!” “Gypsy” with Bernadette Peters, “The Boy from Oz,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Sweet Charity,” “Rent,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Tarzan”…. I’m sure there are others, but that is most of them.
BB: How does a dresser’s job differ from show to show?
Elizabeth: Just like every career field, a dresser’s job changes depending on needs. The basics are still there – you put clothes on people – but it will be in a different theater, which means different backstage space and different quick change space. It’s obviously a different wardrobe crew, and a different cast, and different wardrobe supervisors have different management styles. Then it depends on the show and the costumes. For example, in “Oklahoma!” the cast spent most of the show in the same clothes, but then there was a huge dream sequence in the middle, where half the cast did a massive quick change into their dream sequence costumes, then out again. In “Rent,” because there were so many different characters, the cast was constantly changing clothes.
BB: Can you tell us what some great skill sets are for someone wanting to work as a dresser?
Elizabeth: Obviously knowing how to sew is important, even basic skills such as sewing on buttons, because you may end up having to do something like that on the fly. I think the biggest skills are great people skills and patience. Because dressers work so intimately with actors, you really need to know how to interact with them in a way that makes them comfortable. And patience, because it’s live theater – stuff can happen at any time! I also think it’s important to be in good shape, and to take care of your body, because it’s a physically demanding job, too. You are often up and down stairs, on your feet, working long days – it’s important to get enough rest and stay strong.
BB: Can you offer any advice to people wanting to pursue a career as a dresser?
Elizabeth: Obviously the more experience you can get working backstage, the better, so you are familiar with the whole scene. Working in a costume shop is a great way to get experience too, because then you become familiar with clothing construction, and how theatrical costumes are constructed, compared to regular clothes.
BB: Can you talk a bit about the wardrobe union? What is it, how does it protect dressers, and how do you join?
Elizabeth: The Theatrical Wardrobe Union is part of IATSE, and there are locals all over the country. Some towns are too small to have their own wardrobe union, but New York City obviously has the capacity for a large union. As with any union, it protects members through regulations governing workplace conditions, such as a maximum number of hours members can work in a given period of time, what rates can be charged for what type of work, and so on. Producers would take advantage of these things if the rules were not protected by the unions, so it’s in your best interest to pursue union membership. If you want to work in New York, you need to be a member. Register with the TWU Local 764 office and find out what the rules are before you start looking for work, and make note of that on your resume itself, so supervisors know you are trying to get in. I transferred from my home wardrobe union, and that is a slightly different procedure. Again, contacting the local office is the place to start the process.
On another note, the history of IATSE and the Wardrobe Unions is worth learning. It will give you perspective on the industry currently, and appreciation for what the early union activists went through to give you the benefits you enjoy as a union member.
BB: You have also worked as a wardrobe supervisor on ice shows and in regional theater. How does this differ from working on Broadway?
Elizabeth: I started off working in regional theater, then ended up touring for three years as wardrobe supervisor for Disney on Ice. Both are completely different from each other, and from Broadway. In regional theater, you load in a show and load it out again a few months later, whereas on Broadway, the shows can sit for years, or at least many months. On tour, of course, you generally load a show in and out every week. Regional theaters tend to be the same crews, but different casts, and on tour you have the same cast, but get local crew members every new city. I trained four dressers every week when I was on tour. Touring is a great way to get experience fast – a “crash course” in a way. Maintenance is harder on the road, since you can’t take stuff to the dry cleaners every week, so you have to be more creative about how costumes get cleaned. Regional theaters have an advantage over both tours and Broadway in this aspect, sometimes – their costumes shops are always in the same place, with the same equipment. Because Broadway shows rotate in the theaters, the wardrobe room and washers and dryers might not necessarily be in the same location, depending on the production requirements.
BB: After many successful years, what made you decide to transition out of the business? Can you offer any advice for people wanting to do the same?
Elizabeth: I realized, after a while, that I wanted more job stability than theater could provide, and my knees wanted something a bit less physical. So I did day work and worked as a swing while I went to graduate school. It was actually really great to work on Broadway while going to grad school, because shows always want dressers who only want to work part-time. I was just as busy as I was when I was working full time! And I lucked out that I knew supervisors who understood my goals and were accommodating when my class schedules changed every semester.
The biggest challenge in getting out of the business is figuring out how to talk about your theater experiences in ways that make sense to non-theater people. Depending on what field you want to transition into, it may be a completely alien world to outsiders. They don’t understand that theater people tend to be more flexible, more adaptable, and have better people skills than someone who has always worked in the same career field.
BB: While dressing full time, you were also able to navigate graduate school – what were the greatest challenges?
Elizabeth: I eventually ended up only working part time, and going to grad school part time. My classes were all evening classes, so it was just too challenging to take time off of my regular track. I did luck out and find a supervisor who was willing to let me split a track with another dresser who only wanted to work part-time, so I dressed 4 shows a week, and the other dresser did the other 4 shows. That is unusual – most supervisors don’t want to deal with that. It’s easier to work as a swing, because then you can manage how often or how little you can work. And doing day work is a great option, because it adds more flexible times to make money. I also studied backstage, whenever I had some free time. It takes focus to study while the cast is rocking out on stage! But I think anyone who decides to go back to school faces the same challenge, trying to juggle a fulltime job, perhaps a family, and more.
BB: Can you offer any words of advice to actors about dressers?
Elizabeth: Dressers are not your servants! We are there for the clothes, not for you – you just happen to be in the way. J Dressing ends up being a lot like parenting, I think, constantly following someone around picking up clothes they drop on the floor. It’s rude, when actors assume that they can just toss their clothes wherever, knowing that the dressers have to pick up after them. Show some respect for the clothing as well as the dressers taking care of them. The best actors are careful about how they remove their clothing, make sure they are put where they are supposed to be, and tell dressers when something breaks, rips, or changes. Some shows have an “us versus them” vibe, which is generally top-down, but the best shows to work on are the ones where the cast and crew work well together.
BB: Anything else you want to share about the business?
Elizabeth: It’s a rarified world, unique to anything else, anywhere else in the world. Working on Broadway is something you can’t do anywhere else, even theater outside of New York is different. Being a dresser is a great place to be, because you are in the middle of the action! You get to see the show not only through the eyes of a stagehand (because that’s what you are), but through the actors’ eyes. But keep in mind that working with actors places you in a position of confidentiality. They will tell you things that should not be repeated. This is how you earn their respect as well, and mutual respect makes the best working relationship.