The next time you’re asked to give a riveting speech onstage, change costumes out of the line of sight, and be back onstage in a different outfit—in less time than it takes to say “break a leg”—don’t panic. Instead, take a cue from the legacy of quick-change performers to help turn costume commotion into an accelerated art. The quick-change artist excels at changing outfits and appearances in the blink of an eye, and you can apply their insights to your own work. This article discusses the turbo transformative tactic and how to apply its tips and techniques to your next performance.
A quick-change artist is a performer who changes from one outfit to the next in mere seconds, usually during a magic show or dance performance.
This old-school stage star was famous for the expedient wardrobe changes featured in his impersonation acts. He would play dozens of different characters over the course of his routine and even inspired the term “Fregoli delusion”—a rare disorder in which a person believes they are being victimized by someone who is disguising themselves as multiple people.
Awarded the fastest, most prolific quick-change artist in the world by “Guinness World Records,” Brachetti is renowned for his 80-character, two-hour show: “The Man With 1000 Faces.”
David Maas and Dania Kaseeva
This married couple made it to the semifinals of the first season of “America’s Got Talent” with their speedy costume changes.
Sos and Victoria Petrosyan
Also “Guinness World Records” holders, this duo has been called “the new generation of quick-change artists.”
The three different styles of quick change used by performance artists are:
- The old Fregoli style: Following in the footsteps of Fregoli, this style entails a full metamorphosis, including changing character and gender.
- The Russian style: This style is more focused on the art of costume changes, usually as part of a couples dance.
- The magic style: Popular with magic shows, these reality-defying, instantaneous changes seem unreal.
This art form has a rich, textured history that goes back centuries. A quick history of the quick change:
- 17th century: Japanese Kabuki theater included expedient and strategic outfit changes as part of the allure. Japan was the main performance hub for the quick change through the 18th century.
- 19th century: With his famed costume transitions, Fregoli became a prominent Italian cultural icon.
- 20th century: The art form, then called the art of costume change transformation, took off in Russia throughout the mid-century. In 1990, Bill Murray portrayed a con man relying on speedy switches in the film “Quick Change.”
- 21st century: Dozens of artists now compete using this unique style, primarily at competitions held by the International Federation of Magic Societies.
Beyond its history as a specific type of mind-bending performance, quick change has a significant role in the theater. Actors performing in live theatrical productions often need to change outfits in a matter of seconds for the play to run smoothly. And while quickly changing from one costume to the next can be difficult even for the most seasoned theatrical actor, studying the experts can help.
From costuming magic to dresser assistance, quick-change artistry is by no means a solo act. Here are some the ways that quick-change artists work their magic:
- Velcro, snaps, and magnets: Like Gob’s rip-away pants in “Arrested Development,” some quick-change clothing, such as items held together by Velcro, snaps, and magnets, lend themselves to fast changes. Simplification is key, says South Coast Repertory costume designer Shigeru Yaji. When he put on a play involving quick changes, he knew they didn’t have time to “completely change shoes and trousers, because that would create major problems.” Instead, they used Velcro and elastic to allow for expedient clothing changes. Costume designer Van Hedwall says that waffle snaps and costumes with back closures are key.
- Connected costumes: Connected costumes make it appear as though performers are wearing a full outfit—but it’s just one piece. This type of transformative clothing is primarily sold at specialty shops like Quick Costume Change Products Shop, King Magic, and multiple Etsy shops—or you can always make your own.
- Layers: Most fast clothing changes use multiple layers of clothing, so that only the top layer needs to be removed to reveal the previously hidden second layer. You may notice that in most performances, costumes get smaller and smaller as the show goes on—this is because each costume must obscure the next.
- Props: Props such as umbrellas and stage smoke can help with onstage changes by diverting audience attention and allowing privacy.
- Dresser help: Few performers can change in seconds without a little help. While actors usually take off their own clothing, dressers provide necessary assistance by handing over new costume items and focusing on smaller accessories. One dresser trick is to pool pants and skirts on the floor so that the performer can see where to put their legs without missing a beat, and gather shirt arms so that they can push their arms through immediately.
- Practice: Of course, like any type of performative profession, the more you practice, the better you’ll be. Actor Dan Hiatt says that after spending years doing quick changes, the body starts to remember the movements intuitively. So even if you’re distracted during the big performance, having enough practice under your belt can save the day through muscle memory.
To overcome the challenges involved in snappy re-styling, performers must perfectly plan their timing, movements, and costumes.
- Timing: One missed beat and the entire show is off.
- Choreography: Where an actor is located onstage matters just as much as their timing. Impeccable choreography helps ensure that performers and dressers are in the right places at the right moments.
- Costumes: The smallest costume error can create a huge issue—as performer Léa Kyle learned when her skirt wouldn’t come off during her semifinal act on “America’s Got Talent.” If you experience any of these challenges during a performance, it’s best to do as Kyle did: power through any gaffes and charm the pants off your audience (before they notice your own pants are still on).
Not everyone can succeed at changing costumes with grace and a fast pace. The best prompt performers are:
- Calm: Actors “who are calm and stay still” are the best to work with for fast wardrobe changes, says Eileen Clancy, wardrobe supervisor at San Jose Repertory Theatre. Shaky hands and jitters can ruin the illusion.
- Deft: Changing outfits swiftly requires a high level of agility—and this applies to assistants, as well. The best dressers are “absolutely calm and deft with the hands,” says Hiatt, who performed quick changes in a theatrical performance.
- Fast: To state the obvious, a quick-change artist needs to be, well, quick. Unfortunately, movement disorders or other conditions that slow the body can make it difficult. Otherwise, to increase speed, you can condition yourself with quickness in mind by focusing on:
- Your core: Having a strong core allows your body to move faster. Try crunches and planks to build core strength.
- Your endurance: Do interval training exercises to build endurance while still activating your fast twitch muscles.
- Your feet and hands: Jump rope, single-leg hops, pushups, and wrist extensions can help condition them for speed.
Smooth costume changes are a necessary component to any cohesive theatrical production. Even if you’re not a trained quick-change artist, using specialty clothing, having assistance, and being calm, deft, and fast will help the flow of any stage production.