Quick changes

One of the most important skills to learn in theatre, whether as a performer or a member of the backstage team, is the art of doing things quickly and quietly, often in the dark.  The set has to be shifted, microphones need to be switched from person to person, props need to be put in place, complicated traffic systems negotiated so that the right people are on the stage at the right time, and most entertaining of all, costumes need to be changed, often faster than you would think possible.

I have written before about the excitements that costume changes brought to a production of Dido and Aeneas, and I think it’s fair to say that I’ll never experience anything quite so manic again.  Most shows, though, offer their moments of fun and games with costume – so much so that it’s almost a shame when a show comes along which involves the same set of clothes throughout.

One of the most exciting costume changes I’ve ever had a hand in was not my own.  This was during Titanic.  The actor playing Charles, a second class passenger, had not been attending rehearsals and eventually dropped out of the production, leaving us with a bit of a problem.  Frantic phone calls were made to practically every man who could act and sing in the area, but with no joy – given the size of the cast, we already had more men on stage than you would normally expect, and those who weren’t involved had already decided not to do the show for their own various reasons.  So the man playing Wallace Hartley, the Titanic’s bandleader, was asked to step in, as there were no scenes where both Charles and Hartley absolutely *had* to appear on stage at the same time.  He was cunningly disguised to aid the illusion of Charles and Hartley being different people (Charles now had glasses and a beautiful moustache), but we were left with one moment which was going to be very hard to pull off.  Shortly before the end of the first act, before anyone starting worrying about icebergs, Charles and his fiancée (Caroline) had a scene and walked off stage – this was immediately followed by a scene in the first class smoking lounge, where Hartley was supposed to be playing the piano.  The piano was dispensed with, as it was considered too heavy to shift about, and Hartley’s violin substituted – still, how did the same actor appear at the end of one scene and the beginning of the next when there was no break between them, only a change in the lighting state on stage?

It required military precision.  As the couple walked off, Caroline placed a hand on Charles’ back, getting a firm grasp on his jacket on the way.  Meanwhile, a dresser was on hand in the wings with Hartley’s jacket and I was present with Hartley’s violin.  Once out of sight of the audience, Charles would step out of his jacket, which would immediately end up in Caroline’s hands and turn around to have the dresser put Hartley’s jacket on him.  Meanwhile, Caroline removed the glasses and moustache while I handed over the violin.  In a matter of seconds, Charles became Hartley.  Many audience members were blissfully unaware that the two characters were played by the same man – after all, who would believe that the character who exited three or four seconds earlier was the same man as the differently-dressed character who entered with the violin?

I have had exciting costume change moments of my own as well, and one of the most notable of these was caused by me doubling up roles which are normally played by different people.  In West Side Story, I played both Doc and Officer Krupke, while a friend played both Glad Hand and Lieutenant Schrank.  This was fine, as we didn’t ever need to appear on stage at the same time as ourselves, if you see what I mean, but it did lead to a bit of fun and games for me.  During act two, after a dramatic entrance and exit through the auditorium as Krupke, I had to dash back to the dressing rooms to make a change to Doc ready for a particular scene change which was my opportunity to climb down a ladder into the orchestra pit which doubled as Doc’s cellar.  This was a complete change – Krupke wore a police uniform complete with hat, whistle, truncheon, dark socks and black shoes, while Doc was dressed in a casual shirt with brown trousers, shoes and socks.  Doc also had greying temples and some age lines which needed to be applied in a hurry (and so were differently effective at different performances depending on how rushed I was).  I underdressed as much as possible, with Doc’s trousers and socks under Krupke’s trousers and socks and had everything arranged as neatly as possible in the dressing room.  The toothbrush and face pain required for greying the temples would be readily accessible, the shoes would be unlaced and Doc’s shirt would be hanging on the back of a chair.  There were also people on hand (several members of the Sharks) who could help if the need arose.  I am pleased to say that I made it on time during each performance, with only the variable make-up job attesting to the hurried nature of the change (and once I had to finish doing by shirt buttons up while crouching behind the French horn).  And again, those who were not in the know had absolutely no idea that two men were actually one singing librarian.

More recently, in The Pajama Game, I had quite a number of costume changes.  It was a crazy show for costume changes, as even those members of the cast who escaped lightly during the action were faced with a hurried change into pyjamas for the finale, with the entire cast racing to get into their nightwear while the leads, Sid and Babe, briefly reprised their main duet.  Some of the principals, though, had an additional series of frenzied costume moments during the show, with Babe having one of the scariest, having to don a new dress (the previous dress having been removed on stage in the previous scene) in the space of a scene change and four lines of dialogue from the supporting female characters.

My own Pajama Game costume changes were a source of some stress for me.  My first happened between a scene in the factory and the company picnic.  Dressed in my work suit, I made unwanted advances on Brenda and followed her off stage.  Sid and Babe had a few lines of dialogue, the scene shifted to the company picnic, the Salesman said how much he enjoyed the annual event and then Prez was supposed to leap up onto a table and get everyone organised, dressed not in his suit, but in jeans, a most unpleasant casual shirt and a clashing tie.  I quickly dispensed with the idea of changing shoes in this instance (I was supposed to switch from brogues to sneakers, but it just wasn’t going to happen), and by the time of the third performance had finally worked out a way of achieving the switch in time.  The jeans would be worn under the work suit trousers (which were very baggy!).  The tie would be half done up and left ready with the casual shirt.  For the final entrance in the work scene, Prez would be without his habitual pencil and pad and would not be wearing his jacket (as it was after work had ended for the day). And most importantly of all, no attempt would be made to return to the dressing room, as there were too many potential obstacles en route, even with the dressing room being 5 yards from the stage left wing.  For the show, the orchestra were placed on a raised platform above the stage, and there were steps up to said platform in the wing.  These steps became my quick change area – shirt and tie were hung up here, and the work suit and shirt would be dumped here during the picnic scene.  I would exit stage left, dash round to the steps, pull the trousers off, unbutton the work shirt and hurriedly don the casual shirt.  The top few buttons of the casual shirt done up, the tie would slip on and then the final buttons attended to.  A spot of tucking in, and a raising of the jeans waistband and the change would be complete, with a second or two to spare before I had to make my entrance.  After the second performance, where I nearly didn’t make it (leaving a pregnant pause of a second or two, which is long enough to feel like forever on stage), the chorus were ready with ways to cover for my non-arrival should it happen again, but I also came up with my cunning plan to shave seconds off the change – quick changes are times when every second really does count.

Said seconds counted again in the second act, where it felt like I was changing costume most of the time.  In the first scene, I was in my suit, then I had the length of the song ‘Steam Heat’ to change into casual attire.  Then, oh bliss and rapture, quite some time to get ready for the scene in ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, but then a swift change into my suit and later a relatively leisurely change into the pyjamas, if you compared it to the speed of other changes in the show.  For Hernando’s, I was wearing a blue satin shirt (velcroed at the front, which was entertaining as my dancing would sometimes cause the velcro to come undone) with black trousers and black cummerbund.  I had a couple of minutes to change from this to the work attire – suit, white shirt and pink bow tie.  This time, it was a team effort.  Running off stage to pursue the love of my character’s life, I would rip off the satin shirt on the move as soon as the door closed behind me.  Love of my life would have my suit trousers ready, which I would slip over the black trousers while she got my white shirt ready.  Shirt and trousers would be adjusted to ensure that cummerbund was hidden, while love of life attended to the poor, discarded satin shirt.  A fellow union member would by now have my jacket ready for me to slip in to and then came the joy of the bow tie.  It was always touch and go whether Prez would have the bow tie for his next entrance (about seven lines and a scene change after his exit), as it did up with a hook at the front rather than a back hook or velcro.  Fiddly little movements like doing up this style of bow tie are much, much harder when you are rushed (and you have no mirror to look into to help you), so I would have to take a deep breath and try to do it slowly, even though I knew that I had only a few seconds to get it right before I would have to grab the pencil and pad and make my entrance.  Those who had helped me with the change would be there for moral support, and we would exchange grins, thumbs up and so forth when the procedure was completed – the bow tie managed to make an appearance in that scene for the final three shows, which I hope it enjoyed.

So, there you have it.  Quick changes are quite good fun in a way, though they certainly increase the pulse rate and require a lot of concentration in order to make sure that everything is done in exactly the right order.  Teamwork is often required (even if it’s simply knowing when to stand out of the way so that a fellow performer can speed towards their quick change area) and the audience should not be in any way aware that the performer has just been flustered by a costume change.  I have once had three pairs of trousers on underneath each other to help with costume changes, and you really would be amazed at what actors are wearing underneath their top layer sometimes.  Velcro is our friend, while hooks and eyes are our deadly enemies.  You really have never experienced the joy of changing clothes until you’ve done it against the clock, in the dark and in silence.  It’s one of those things which prove there really is more to acting than just acting.  For the moment, though, I shall enjoy being able to get dressed at leisure, with only a small part of me wondering what my next quick change will involve and whether I’ll make it in time.

  1. I used to work a lot with a company called Partytime productions. We toured in teams of three, going to places like nursing/care homes – places that people couldn’t easily leave for a night out at the theatre. Our set was a clothes rail covered with a velvet curtain, which we would set up at the back of the room, and all our costumes and props were hidden behind it. Space was always tight and, as a tall girl (5’11”) I would often have to crouch behind the screen in order to avoid popping up over the top and ruining the illusion. Given that there were only ever three of us in the cast, and there would usually be at least twice that number of characters in the play, quick changes were de rigeur and we got exceptionally slick at helping each other from ballgown to full ‘skin’ goose costume to witch costume – or whatever it called for in that particular play. Always hectic, but it led to some fantastically funny moments as one or other of us got stuck or (as happened to me a couple of times) got into the wrong costume. Ahem.

    One of my most difficult quick change experiences, however, was at drama school. We were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the fairies were all S&M characters. I was one of the lucky ones, in a vinyl playsuit with a zip up the front, which was easy to get in and out of, provided someone yanked it down from behind after I’d unzipped it, so I could get my arms free. My friend Jeff was less fortunate, in rubber teeshirt and shorts. It took two of us to get him changed. He would bend over and I would grab the hem of his t-shirt, yanking it over his head, while another cast member grabbed his shorts and peeled them off him. Luckily he wasn’t too hairy, but talc was most definitely his friend in that show …!

  2. Aargh. Sorry – didn’t close my italic tags properly. Bad Katja.

    • Trish
    • March 27th, 2010

    I guess one of the great things about putting on a play/performance is the way it breaks down barriers between people.

    In the context of producing the perfect play it is quite acceptable to help other cast members with changes of costume whereas in real life people don’t usually help each other much.

    I am always pleased when someone helps me put on my coat 🙂

    • Trish
    • May 4th, 2010

    Have just re-read my comment and realised that I was replying to the last person’s comment and not your post. I must remember not to do that 🙂

    I should imagine that it takes a lot of concentration to switch from one character to another when you are playing more than one part.

  3. Katja, that is a wonderful quick changes story, and makes me feel very lucky indeed to have gotten off so lightly in that department!

    Trish, I find that you do things backstage (not to mention on stage) that you would never do in any other context – you just get on with it in order to get the job done! and playing two or more roles is an interesting discipline, and I love watching how actors in small touring productions etc carry it off. Costuming, whether it’s a full change or just a range of different hats, certainly helps a lot.

  4. I never really thought about the costume changes before. maybe I’ll join a local production with my kids, at the least they may learn to get ready faster in the morning.

  1. August 2nd, 2010
  2. August 14th, 2010

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