Why It’s Hard for Actors to Dress Themselves

How long does it take you to get dressed in the morning? Assume you already have your clothes picked out, but you’re not “dressed” until your shoes are on, your hair is perfect, and you’re ready to walk out the door.

How does 15 seconds sound?

That’s how long Catherine Porter, who plays Diana in Next to Normal, has for one of her complete costume changes. It’s the fastest change in the show – usually, the actors have between 90 seconds and 3 minutes to change clothes. And some of those quick changes involve wigs, hair extensions, and formal wear! Fortunately, they have help.

The set-up for one of Dan (Bob Gaynor)'s quick changes

The set-up for one of Dan (Bob Gaynor)’s quick changes

It’s up to Geva Wardrobe Supervisor Ana Vallejo to make those changes workSince Next to Normal is a co-production, in this case she started by shadowing the wardrobe staff at the Alliance Theatre when the show was running there in October. She timed each quick change with a stopwatch, took notes on the sequence of removing and putting on costume pieces, and drew diagrams of how the clothes were laid out beforehand.

Even with careful preparation, it’s impossible for the changes to happen exactly the same way here at Geva, because the two theatres’ stages are different. The Alliance had enough space in the wings to line up four chairs with costume pieces ready for four different changes. At Geva, there’s less space that’s out of the audience’s line of vision, and some of it is taken up by the band. Ana only has room for one chair. This means she had to set up changing areas farther from the stage and prioritize: the actor with the least time to change gets dressed in the wings, while those with more time are assigned to other locations.

Often, after they change, actors have to enter the next scene on the opposite side of the stage. At the Alliance, there was a backstage crossover where cast and crew could walk without being seen. The Next to Normal set doesn’t leave room for this on Geva’s stage, so everyone has to go downstairs and through the dressing room area to get across the stage. When you’re counting time in seconds, that makes a big difference. Ana used her notes to identify potential problems so that all the crosses and quick changes could be smoothed out during tech rehearsals.

But logistics aren’t the only tricky thing about quick changes. Performing Next to Normal is a very emotional experience, and it can be hard on the actors. They come off stage after a heart-wrenching scene, and right away a crew member is helping them take their clothes off and put new ones on, fast. Karin Eckert is the dresser for Catherine and for Lyndsay Ricketson (who plays Natalie), and she understands how delicate this situation can be. “I have to be reactive,” she says, “whatever they need.”

What do they need? Tissues, sometimes. Water or tea. A smile, or something to giggle about, or silence – it depends. Karin can’t always wait for them to ask, because there’s not a lot of time, and because part of her job is to let the performers stay focused on the show. So during rehearsals, she lets the cast know she’s available by looking for ways to help – like warning singers if the air in the theatre is dry and offering them water. If it’s cold, she’ll get a hot drink ready and hold the next costume in front of a space heater when a change is coming up. But, more importantly, “I’ve learned to read moods and check in at the beginning of the day to see how they’re doing. Usually we get quieter as the show goes on” and the emotions get more intense.

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