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What it's like to be a Dresser in a receiving house venue

By Amy Cooper

What is a 'receiving house'? You may or may not be aware of our rapidly changing programme of shows, with us playing host to a new production at the very least on a weekly basis. This, of course, means that we do not produce our own performances, we receive them from a variety of diverse, exciting and skilled producers. And that's what determines us as a receiving house, curating a variety of shows for your pleasure. Therefore we do not have in-house costume designers, as we simply do not have a need for them. Though this does not mean we lack the necessity for those skilled in the costume arts. It is a common misconception that once a costume is designed that the work is complete. This is a fallacy. We have a team of highly accomplished and dedicated dressers who hold the monumental responsibility of making sure that every little detail of the original designer's work is displayed without fault. Overseen of course by the touring production's very own Head of Wardrobe, for this production, this is Suzanne Runciman.

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical's costume was designed by Alejo Vietti who as of now has designed costumes for an incredible eight Broadway productions including the recent Holiday Inn and Allegiance. Vietti's 2015 Olivier Nominated work is this week executed by New Wimbledon's exceptional crew, (alongside Beautiful - The Carole King Musical's very own accomplished wardrobe and wigs team) and we were granted the opportunity to follow one of them around in order to understand and convey to you just how astonishingly vital of a role they play. So without further ado let us introduce you to Wimbledon's very own Inmaculada Cook

It is easy to imagine that Inma's job is simply that of a laundry maid, required to wash, steam and iron clothes after they have been performed and most likely profusely sweated in. Yes, she does concede that this is a small portion of her job, but it is certainly not where her duty starts and ends and she can also attest that actors do sweat, A LOT. Though we both agree that we can cut them some slack, as they do stand under abnormally hot stage lights for up to two hours. So Inma is inevitably amongst those that have the task to prepare each set of clothes for their next wear. But she doesn't mind, because as she explains, there are so many more exciting and exhilarating elements to her normal working day. She goes on to note that there is something unadulterated in helping to take care of a touring production's costumes, preserving the original artistic and bureaucratic work. Going on to then deliver a level of precision, by ensuring costumes 'look right' before an actor steps out on stage. It is, therefore, her responsibility as a dresser to ensure within her designated portion of actors that no article is worn wrong, broken or missing, so as to sanctify the original intention. In this sense, a theatrical design is almost archival, a historical artefact that for reasons of accuracy and truth must remain unchanged.

Inma's day starts solo, with the rest of our in-venue dressers arriving later on. She undertakes a whopping four hours of provisionary work, for which she must follow to the letter a series of instructions laid out by the Head of Wardrobe. Sounding possibly more extreme than it is, she is tasked with emptying running washers and then separating costumes. She tumble dries those that require it and follows her instructions to use the hot boxes for other items. Then she will continue to iron, solidly whilst another 2-3 loads go round. Not for this particular show, but others may even require the steaming of clothes or, if not done by the company as in this case, hand-washing. On occasion a production may even grant Inma the power to fix any damaged costumes with a sewing machine, generally, our Christmas Pantomime allows for this. Once completed, Inma will categorise the costumes she is working with by actor, putting each piece under their name ready for the other dressers to collect pre-show. 

For Beautiful - The Carole King Musical's performances however it's not just Inma we've got ensuring that the costuming goes off without a hitch, this week we have a team of five wonderful dressers, supporting Beautiful - The Carole King Musical's own multifaceted costuming team, theirs being made up of a Head and Deputy Head of each Wardrobe and Wigs and then a further Assistant for each as well. Every dresser will then follow their own assigned 'plot', designed by the Head of Wardrobe, detailing for the duration of the show, where and what they should be doing. It is an actor-by-actor, scene-by-scene inventory of all the costumes and props they have to contract with. This requires them to be present and attentive for wardrobe tasks divisionally during the set up (pre-show), Act One, the interval, Act Two and the end of the show and this is usually broken down further by scene or song. They will start by collecting the railed costumes for the actors they are looking after and then split these between what is needed in dressing rooms and what is needed on a trundle side of the stage. Throughout the performance, the dressers then lay out various items on quick change chairs within the corridor side of the stage in a specified order, or stand waiting with items depending on what their plot tells them to do. Both of Beautiful - The Carole King Musical's costumers and our dressers function as a finely tuned machine, working on different plots that often interlink. As Inma states 'It is a definitely a team effort as one person maybe adjusting part of the clothing, whilst another is altering a wig and a further dresser may attend to the shoes.' As you can see dressing is unimaginably detailed. 

Interlinking plot points for different dressers usually come at the part of her job that Inma prefers the most, the quick changes! Bursts of high adrenaline, where dressers turn into tornados whipping around an actor in quick succession often changing their garb entirely. Situated at the side of the stage, they can then have anything from thirty seconds up to two minutes to support an actor in changing and ensuring they get back to the stage with every wardrobe element intact and any required props. Though many remark that this must be intensely nerve-wracking, Inma gets both a thrill and sense of accomplishment out of it. For this show Amy Ellen Richardson, who plays Cynthia Weil is Inma's main concern, requiring a series of extremely quick changes. Amy wears an array of gorgeous and sophisticated outfits, of which Inma loves her 'green outfit', a chic blouse and trouser combo. On inspection of Inma's plot for Amy, it is clear to see the level of detail, as she is required to move with an air of choreographed synchronicity fulfilling each point in a specified order, for example unzipping a garment whilst Amy removes jewellery, Inma next passing some trousers over whilst Amy puts on more Jewels and so forth. 

You might be confused that we earlier mentioned properties, thinking this must only be the job of an ASM, (Assistant Stage Manager) to run. However, if a prop goes along with a particular costume or quick change it can often become the task of a dresser to run this element to the actor(s) requiring it. A further extension of responsibility laid upon our astounding dressers. Dressers can even be there for that extra helping hand. Inma recounts how Amy, following an on-stage kiss, must re-apply her make up the side of the stage, so she is always ready with make-up wipes, Amy's make-up pot, a mirror and a light. As mentioned earlier, it's a team effort. 

To conclude let us leave you with Inma's favourite costume, The Shirelle's pink dresses. She admires the use of a variety of fabrics and the detail that went into them, from the patterned pink and silver swirls made of sequins on the bodice to the draped fabric forming a kind of cape, finished with an adorable bow at the waist. Inma stating that they 'just look so good', going on to explain that the colour is striking and incredibly complementary on each of the ensemble members who wear them. 

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical ran at New Wimbledon Theatre from 22 to 26 May 2018.