Nadia Kaboul is a dresser for The 39 Steps. During the show, the cast of four plays dozens of different characters, each with a different costume. The costume changes happen lightning-fast, and what the audience doesn't see is the carefully rehearsed, mad dance of quick changes. Nadia reveals what it's like to prepare for and work the show backstage as a dresser.
Preparing Costumes for The 39 Steps
A typical show of The 39 Steps is pretty regimented. In terms of prep, or “day work,” we press all of the base costumes (shirts, slacks, vests) and steam suit coats and dresses. We check the costumes for any repairs that are needed or interim cleaning/lint rolling. All of the pieces that are added on remain on racks/tables backstage. We make sure the costumes are pre-set to where they need to be for top of show, and make sure they're all in ready and working order.
We start our presets a little before an hour before the show, and are standing by, ready to dress at 5 minutes to show. There are three tracks—meaning there are three dressers backstage, four people if you count hair. It’s a pretty heavy track because there are constantly quick changes all throughout the show. All of the changes are done backstage—many of them in the wings—as the cues are so fast."
Made to Change
Many of the costumes are rigged for quick-change. Most "vests” and “shirts" are actually shirts or collars made in to dickies (a detachable insert made to look like a shirt), snapped to a vest that velcros up the back or front. Most bowties are rigged to snap on and off, and many of the costumes are ready to be put on, and taken off, very quickly. However, there are a lot of clothes (jackets, basics, hats) that look up close just the way they look on stage.
During the Show
The changes are very intense. Most people don't realize that all of the things that happen backstage (including set pieces and props) are choreographed just a closely and specifically as the action on stage. All of the changes are rehearsed laboriously, planned and talked through, so they are cued down to the second. A few of the changes toward the end of the show even involve three people to one actor—that's how fast things are happening.
There is a lot of presetting and under-dressing that allow the changes to go as fast as they do (dressing one costume underneath another one) so you just have to remove something instead of remove and add something else. The actors are great to work with, and I think are fantastic sports for how much running around and changing they need to do! It's been a very fun show to work on, even though it's a lot of work.
Pictured above: Ted Deasy, Scott Parkinson, Eric Hissom and Claire Brownell in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps, playing in the Bagley Wright Theatre September 25 to October 24; photo by Craig Schwartz.