Quick costume changes—which delight audiences and turn backstage into a living hell—are a common feature of contemporary plays. So says South Coast Repertory costume designer Shigeru Yaji. "A lot are written like screenplays," he explained, "so the times and places change with short scene after short scene."
I'd called him because I was curious about the mechanics, of the many, and dazzling, quick changes in a play he'd designed, not in fact a contemporary play but rather a classic French farce: Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear at San José Repertory Theatre.
Dan Hiatt, playing the dual roles of louche hotel porter Poche and upper-class twit Chandebise, had eight or nine quick costume changes ranging from 15 seconds to three minutes. The play's joke is that the two opposite types look uncannily alike and therefore everybody thinks they're one person, so each continually ends up slapped into the other's persona—and costume.
Yaji relied on overdressing so that layers of costumes could be peeled off. Simplification was important, too: "From the beginning, I knew we couldn't completely change shoes and trousers because that would create major problems," he said. Among his time-saving outfits: two identical porters' jackets, one with buttons, because Hiatt needed to slip into it onstage at certain points, and one with Velcro for offstage quick changes. Elastic, to make sleeves expand more easily, provides another shortcut.
"If an actor is too neurotic and not able to collaborate with the wardrobe person, then quick changes become very difficult," said Yaji. "But from the beginning Dan was agreeable to what I suggested. He had a we'll-make-it-work attitude."
Actually, Hiatt had a much tougher job when he appeared for two years in the two-character sketch comedy Greater Tuna in a commercial production in San Francisco. He had 73 quick changes in an hour-and-45-minute show. (He also appeared in Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, the ultimate quick-change show, which we'll discuss later.) All Tuna's changes took place in a little upstage area 8 by 10 feet wide, and he had to go off as one character and return as another in seconds.
Does he have a specific technique for weathering such demands? "I wish I did," he sighed. "When you're first doing them, all you think about is the change. At first, in performance, the few seconds before you exit you're thinking about the change to come, and that's hard. But generally you have to walk to another door before you re-enter, and during that time you can think about what's happening just before you enter—which is generally, in any entrance, what you have to think about. That moment when you enter is probably a bit ragged in early performances."
Oddly, reported Hiatt, after you've been doing certain changes for a while, your body remembers them. He went back into Tuna after a yearlong hiatus, and one night he couldn't remember what to do during a change—but his foot came up automatically. It remembered.
San José Rep's wardrobe supervisor, Eileen Clancy, loves doing the quick changes, especially when she's working with an actor as agreeable as Hiatt. She said it's an adrenalin rush. For Flea, there were two quick-change rooms on either side of the stage. Hiatt had two dressers, both working simultaneously, one putting on the garment and the other fastening it.
Clancy initially discussed all the changes with Hiatt. "It was nerve-racking for the first two days as we worked everything out and tried to remember what we did," she said. "It gets rougher as the actor gets nervous or has opening-night jitters, so we have to be extra careful." She added, "There is a wide spectrum of actor's nerves. You want the ones who are calm and stay still. The ones who fuss are a lot harder. You get a fussy one every once in a while who wants to be sure they're looking their best. Their hands are where your hands need to be, so there's a lot of fumbling." Yes, she admitted, that might be gender-specific toward women. As for Hiatt, he's No. 1 on a scale of one to 10, with one being the calmest.
What makes a good dresser? "Absolutely calm and deft with the hands," said Hiatt. Clancy, who likes to think of herself as unflappable, agreed. Plus, a good dresser needs to be highly organized. Communication between actor and dresser is essential—but a dresser shouldn't talk during the change unless the actor initiates it. For one thing, the actor has to be listening for his cue while changing, not always an easy task. By the time I talked to Hiatt, midway through the run of Flea, he was able to exchange a few words of chitchat with the dresser.
But Hiatt bemoaned the lack of adequate rehearsal time theatres routinely allot for changes. "In Flea, we never got a call for like two hours just to choreograph the changes. Theatres don't realize it would be better for actors and dressers—dressers would have fewer eyes poked out—if you'd spend a few hours just doing that. Yes, you get them in the course of tech and previews, and eventually you get there, but oddly theatres don't schedule time just for that. It's not much fun to rehearse the changes, but you should."
Rehearsing the changes is a requirement, though, in a play like Irma Vep, which is all about quick change. What's most important to the costume designer? "One word: Velcro," said Van Hedwall, who designed the costumes for New Conservatory Theatre's staging (currently on the boards in San Francisco) of Ludlam's 1984 Ridiculous Theatrical Company comedy. As written, Irma Vep's two characters each play a variety of roles, including Lady Enid, a werewolf, an Egyptian mummy, and more.
"It's hard," explained Hedwall, "because it's a period piece, and period clothing is usually tailored. It's difficult to find a closure for tailored costuming that will hold, and even Velcro doesn't do such a good job." Waffle snaps—really big snaps—are useful.
The majority of Hedwall's costumes have back closures so actors can jump into them. He also had to design the costumes extra big and pad them to make them look fitted; if they were too tight, the Velcro would rip off. And the costumes needed to be ready a month before opening so the actors had time to practice. He gave them shells of costumes so the real ones wouldn't be ripped up during rehearsal.
At a larger production of Irma Vep—Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's production, currently being remounted at Meadowbrook Theatre in Detroit—East Coast-based actor Remi Sandri was about to go into the first preview for the Lady Enid/werewolf part, his second time around with that role, when I talked to him. Playhouse's production has 53 quick changes, one every two minutes. At one point in the middle of the play, the two actors change back and forth about four times in the space of five to 10 minutes.
Sandri and co-actor Greg McFadden have two dressers each. Changes take place just outside the doors to the set in a dim blue light. "It's like a pit stop in a race," said Sandri. "As soon as I'm clear of the sightlines, I'm ready to change." In the four or five steps it takes to reach the dresser, he starts ripping off clothes. Then he pops out the false werewolf teeth and drops them into a cup taped to the dresser's side. The dress goes as he's bending his head forward to receive his wig. He catches the wig with thumb and forefinger and adjusts it as the dresser adjusts his dress. "A quick look, and away I go," he said. Yes, there have been goofs. One night in Cincinnati he came in as Lady Enid but with the werewolf's teeth still in. Before the lights came up, he popped them out and put them on the mantle. Fortunately they weren't needed again before final curtain.
Sandri, too, emphasized the importance of adequate quick-change rehearsals. It's especially helpful to be able to practice in the light rather than trying it for the first time in the middle of tech in the dark.
"You have to have confidence and relaxation," said Sandri. "It's the same trick you're trying to find onstage." Ludlam, he noted, wrote that no matter how frenetic it is backstage, your next entrance has to be as if you're just coming from tea. "Don't blast through the door," advised Sandri. "Slow your breathing." Do a quick self-check, he added. "Are your shoulders around your ears?"
Other tips? "Remember to breathe!" seconded Hiatt. "And right up front say, 'I want time to rehearse this with the dressers as close as possible to show conditions.'"
Despite the grueling technical requirements, said Sandri, if you get a chance to do Irma Vep, do it: "When it clicks, it's a great ride." BSW