Nancy G. Heller is a Washington writer specializing in the visual and performing arts.
Q: How important is the relationship of the dresser to the person being dressed?
A: It's a very intimate kind of relationship because one of you doesn't have any clothes on. I have dressed many times, and it's interesting because sometimes people talk to you very freely. A lot of bad temper flies at the dressers because you're right there. The calmer personality makes the better dresser. Very often (the performer) is screaming because they can't get back on, not because they hate you. It's one of the many things that go with the territory. Performers have to let it out somewhere and you're there.
Q: Is it always male dressers and male performers and female dressers and female performers?
A: Almost always. There are a few women who prefer men, a number of men who prefer women. It's up to the performer. I have never had a male performer object to a woman, except on personal grounds -- they didn't like this specific person, not that they couldn't tolerate any woman. Although there are a lot of men who are dressers, there are more women because it's a hangover from olden days when people's wives did it and because it involves things your mother did like ironing and washing and sewing. Some actors put in their contract that they want specific people to dress them. It depends on how much clout you've got.
Q: When you did it as a dresser did you find it ever erotic? Is there a sexual component or is it more like seeing a doctor?
A: It's much more like seeing a doctor. It's not sexual at all. Everybody's too hot, too sweaty and too busy.
Q: How about the psychological aspect? Do you feel like people's mothers? Is a lot of the job trying to shore up the performer's ego?
A: Very often people come to and talk to you because we're sitting down. I do feel maternal toward them a lot and have since I was very young, but that is probably me. A lot of people feel there is a caretaking function involved because you're in such close contact and because actors and performers in general have one skin less than the rest of the world. Their emotions are much more out there and so you're much more aware of how and what they're feeling.
Q: Don't you ever find yourself feeling like a servant? I mean, you're washing the underwear of somebody you don't even know.
A: Well, if you don't want to do people's dirty laundry you can't be in wardrobe.
Q: What last-minute disasters do dressers or wardrobe supervisors encounter?
A: Well, the costume isn't there. That's a good one. The other night in "A Chorus Line," an understudy was on and because the finale is arranged according to height there was a change in the position of two of the men who were going on. One person was dressing one space up from his usual space and the understudy was supposed to dress in the next space. Well, they went to each other's space and tried to get into each other's costumes and since one of them was a lot taller than the other it was a problem and they made it by the skin of their teeth.
That's happened when you've had 19 identical costumes lined up. I remember in a production in London once a boy who was 6-foot-3 easy and very skinny and one who was 5-foot-6 and very skinny did the finale in each other's costumes because they picked up the wrong costumes. It was really bizarre. The pants were midcalf on one and the other had to go off during the finale because his pants were so long he couldn't dance.
Anything that can happen to clothes happens. They get dirty, they get torn, they get worn out, they get caught on door frames. Somebody is going out on stage and they'll catch on a piece of the set and rip it. Since there are thousands of people looking at this person with his ripped clothes, someone has to sew it up much more quickly than you have to in real life.
Q: How often have you had people you were responsible for going on with glue or tape or pins?
A: It happens. It's usually the old foot in the hem problem -- you can pin it up until they're off. But occasionally things will happen, particularly in dance shows. I had people running off in "A Chorus Line" -- they were onstage and had a little snag and all of a sudden the entire knee of the tights is split right open. They're going to be standing with an audience looking at them for the next 20 minutes. A run in somebody's hose in real life is not that big a deal. But the perspective from the audience is not one that you see people from in real life. You rarely see people from head to foot.
Q: How did you get into this business?
A: I'd been working in the theater since I was 12. Milwaukee, where I grew up, had a recreation department theater, a traveling theater. It was a trailer that unfolded and it was a company of children, teen-agers who did three shows a day five days a week on all the playgrounds in the city. We did about 190 shows in the summer, "The Three Bears," "The Three Pigs," lots of songs and carrying on.
Q: Were you acting as well as directing?
A: I performed but I always dealt with clothes because the costumes just arrived in baskets from some place that made costumes. They wouldn't fit and things always happen. People stepped on the butterfly's wings. Two adults dealt with driving the trailer and putting up the scenery and dealing with the music but none of them could fit the costumes so it was a question of somebody within the company doing it. And it happened to be me. Every show I worked on, somehow that became my responsibility.
Q: You came to New York just because theater people come to New York?
A: At that point I still thought about performing. (In) New York I realized this amazing thing. In all the years that I'd performed in college (I did) plays that are already good. They've survived. But people spend most of their time acting in plays that aren't good at all. I became much more interested in working backstage where I thought the job was always valid. Whether it's a bad play or terrible play, whether theyre rotten actors or good, the clothes have to be dealt with. Performers have to be able to say to themselves, "This is a terrific play because I'm in it." And they have to really, really believe it.
I've seen actors with 60 years experience convince themselves that this piece of garbage was terrific because they were in it. There was always a reason why the audience would like this. If your mind doesn't work that way, you can't be a professional performer. Because I didn't want to leave the theater and because I always had received an enormous amount of satisfaction from doing wardrobe maintenance, I did that. The competition is a lot less fierce, too.
Q: What is your relationship with a designer of a show?
A: Your relationship is to maintain the designer's design. The designer is too busy to be in the theater once a week. So when things wear out, you are in charge of either getting it duplicated, finding something that is reasonably similar, (or) getting the designer to approve something different.
Q: You always have to go back to the original designer?
A: As much as possible. In many shows, things are shopped rather than made originally, and that item disappears from the market totally. There are things in "Chorus Line" now that, 10 years ago, were bought as little sportswear items. They disappeared from the market within six months. We bought all we could get our hands on and they've stretched out over this period of time, but now they have to be manufactured. Things wear out. You find out what sweat does to a fabric. The finale costumes in " A Chorus Line" (are not replaced) by and large because they lost $2,300 each.
Q: Why so much?
A: Because they were individually made originally for each body and they're covered with hand beading. The beads take forever. When they began they were slightly less expensive and we had them made each time we hired somebody. We haven't made one in the last four years so for the last five years we have been working off the costumes we made for the original New York and touring companies.
Q: They're altered as new people come?
A: Altered, rebeaded. In the wardrobe room (there's) someone sitting there rebeading a girl's leotard. That kind of maintenance -- dry cleaning does amazing things to clothes. In "A Chorus Line" we wash te washable stuff (after) every performance -- the shirts, the socks, the underwear, the leotards, tights. Eight times a week. What they go through with sweat and that amount of washing -- that kind of stuff has to be replaced.
Q: How many other people do wardrobe work on "A Chorus Line"?
A: There are five dressers.
Q: Dressers do what?
A: They dress. They do the quick change at the end of "A Chorus Line." They deal with actors on an individual basis. All these people also do day work, maintenance, ironing, laundry, beading. The cast of "A Chorus Line" is 19. If it did not have the quick change at the end, the finale, there would be fewer dressers.
Q: You've been working on "Chorus Line" since it started, 11 years. Aren't you a little tired of it?
Q: I find it endlessly fascinating. It is partly the kind of performers. For me there is something special about dancers. The way they are, the way they think, their approach. It's like being surrounded by flowers. They bloom and then it ends. It's been amazing to see the development in a number of people because "A Chorus Line" has made a longer career for a lot of dancers than would possibly have been the case.
Q: You don't find it boring to be sitting around waiting?
A: A couple of hours of boredom in your life from time to time is nothing untoward. You could be just as bored at the phone company.
Q: What is your day like?
A: I usually come in at 10 and start the laundry and get it sorted for the people who are coming to do day work. I very often shop in the afternoon. Buy other things for the show, socks, it goes on and on, it never stops. When I have another show like "Dreamgirls" I will check in over there and see how the supervisor is doing. What problems they've got, who has to be replaced, who's hiring the dressers on other shows. If there are touring companies out of a show that I'm supervising, I have to get things and ship them out to them. The dressers come in and do the day work and we bracket-up for the evening. We finish about 10:15.
Q: You had one change in "Chorus Line" and what, 20-something in "Dreamgirls"?
A: More. One character has 20- something changes. Seventeen dressers are involved in "Dreamgirls." We added up the changes in anticipation of the tour and the figure was 734 moves for those 17 people. The three "Dreams" themselves change 46 times. They're always together but all three of them are changing. It's written like a film: every time they set foot off stage it's two years later in another city and they would have changed clothes.
Q: Do you also handle all the wigs and the jewelry in "Dreamgirls"?
A: The wigs belong to the hair department. The jewelry and shoes all belong to wardrobe. The hairdressers run like mad fiends in "Dreamgirls." For most of the changes for the Dreams in "Dreamgirls," you have a dresser and a hairdresser in a very small amount of space in the dark with this poor actress. Very often all three actresses with three dressers and three hairdressers are in one corner doing the whole thing.
Q: How hard is it mechanically just to have all the shoes lined up?
A: It's hard mechanically, hard physically. People ruined their knees dressing "Dreamgirls." Just getting up and down 22 times to put somebody's shoes on. That's a lot of up and down in an hour and 40 minutes and over a period of a year or nine or 10 months you can damage your knees. People's backs go out because a lot of it is lifting and carrying and running. Most theaters are old and most old theaters have many stairs. Dressers aren't the only ones getting their knees ruined, actors are getting their knees ruined, too.
Q: Is it hard to do your laundry when you do somebody else's all the time?
A: Well, it's boring to do your laundry, but it's boring to do everybody's laundry. I personally dress very simply. I have evolved virtually a uniform over the years which is very easy to maintain. I only buy certain kinds of fabrics, certain colors and certain kinds of garments. That makes my look very easy to maintain. Since I have enormously large feet I don't have the shoe situation that most of the people in the world do because I don't have that many choices. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, (c) 1985 MARTHA SWOPE