As much as I love the show I get to see onstage every time I attend a performance, I often wonder about the full production happening backstage. As my passion for theatre has grown, I’ve found myself wanting to know more about choices made in design, how things are timed, how the show gets done by the team behind the performers. When I was explaining to my students that there’s more to a show than what you see, and we discussed this further, I knew I had to talk to someone who lived this lifestyle. Enter Kimmie Mark, who is the dresser for Aaron Burr and George Washington at Hamilton: An American Musical on Broadway. I loved learning about how a show works from the perspective of someone backstage and getting to expose my students to all sides of the creative career paths.
Stef the StageSLP: How did you get into theatre?
Kimmie: Actually, quite by accident, I was a sophomore in college, majoring in ‘Early Childhood Education’, in hopes to become a Kindergarten teacher and luckily the school I was attending had sophomores begin student teaching (as opposed to most schools which waited till the students were juniors), so off I went to meet my class at the end of their school day. I walked into absolute chaos. There were about 20 children all approximately 5 years old in different sections of the room some groups chasing each other, screaming & screeching, some who must have just finished eating chocolate cupcakes covered in frosting, some crying, some throwing toys at others, and I knew in a matter of seconds that I did NOT want to have a career that involved little children. I walked out of there and went directly to the main office and explained I needed to switch majors.
My school at the time was predominately a school for future teachers, so I had no option other than to switch schools. Going into a new school as a junior meant I had to enter already having a major, so I sat down with a fairly chunky book of all my new school’s available majors, starting with ‘A’ and got all the way to the end where there were 2 left, “theater” and “women’s studies”. Not being sure what “women’s studies” were, I choose “theater!” Obviously, this is not a usual way for people to come across their dream profession, and though I honestly cannot think of any other realistic career I would enjoy more, nor better suited for. I completely lucked into this, but it does prove that the career you think you may want, even half way through college, doesn’t mean that’s the one you will end up having or even that you were meant to have. Search till it feels right for you, even if it takes a while!
S: What made you choose to pursue a creative career behind the curtain instead of onstage?
K: This one’s easy, I’m pretty shy and hate taking center stage in any type of group, even if it’s only 4-5 people, being center of attention or speaking to crowds is not something that I would ever enjoy doing.
S: What exactly does a dresser do?
K: The chain of command goes like this: The Director hires a Costume Designer, who hires a Wardrobe Supervisor, who in turn hires all the dressers to run the show, laundry and stitching people, and dayworkers to come in during the day to prep all the costumes, and eventually swings for all these positions. The Dresser, once hired, gets assigned an actor, or group of actors and that stays the same for the life of the show. An actor in a starring role can request a dresser that they’ve worked with before, or simply put that dresser in their contract, to ensure they will have that dresser.
Before Tech Week begins, the dresser will be responsible for checking their actor’s costume list and checking them in as they arrive from the costume shops making them. They help the actor set up their dressing room and set up general ideas of where costume changes will take place during the run of the shows. This is based on the paperwork you receive from your Supervisor with the breakdown of which actors change when, how much time they have, and where they exit and enter the stage. This is the fun part for me, it’s a huge puzzle and everyone’s pieces have to fit together. Tech week is when you see if your version of how and where the changes will happen gets worked out. The dresser works closely with the other dressers and the crew guys to work out if quick change booths need to be constructed, where hooks need to be hung up, excess lights are needed, shelves built and hung, chairs and mirrors need to be purchased etc.
Once tech week is complete and the show is ‘set’, the Dresser is from then on responsible when they get to the theater each day, one hour before half hour each performance, to unlock the dressing room, bring them show laundry, check all the costumes that need to be in the room, then preset all your actors costumes around the theater, fill all their water bottles, make sure they have sweat and shower towels, load the mics into the mix belts, and be set up by half hour when the actors are required to arrive and then start getting them ready as needed.
During the show the dresser is responsible for all their quick changes, and for making sure their actors are dressed and on time for all their entrances. At the end of the show, we make sure all costumes are cleared from set and collect show laundry as well as any costumes that may get washed daily to bring to the laundry person. At this point your dressing duties are complete. However, if you are a Star Dresser, your after-show duties may include anything from bringing your actors guests to the dressing room, helping entertain their guests, collecting the actors dinner on a 2-show day or maybe running errands for them between shows. As Alan Cumming’s long-time dresser, after each evening show my dressing duties change into bar-tending duties and I bar tend to all his guests, mixing drinks and making soda waters! I’ve made and served drinks to many, many famous people, most notably (to me) Paul McCartney and Jessica Lange to Green Day and many TV stars that I watch weekly!
S: You have multiple actors playing the parts you’re dressing. Is it a different process for each actor, or is it all based on character?
K: It’s basically the same for each actor, the timing and location of the changes cannot be changed, as well as the time slot assigned to each character to get into mics and wigs. What they can change are little personal things, like if they want a different temperature water during the show, some like cold, some hot, some a mix.
S: What should audience members know about a dresser’s job?
K: One thing I hear most from people when I say I am a dresser on Broadway is “oh you must get to see all the shows!” This couldn’t be more inaccurate! Since most shows play at the same time, Broadway workers hardly ever get to see other shows. If I wanted to see another show, it would require me to request a night off with no pay, and I would have to purchase a ticket to the other show just like any other person. We do not get any special discounts to buy tickets to other shows. In fact, backstage workers never even get to see the show they are working on! We go to the rehearsal studio the day before the actors move into the theater and watch a run through of the show there, in a plain white room, with no costumes, sets, lighting or band. It’s just the actors in sweats with one single piano. We get an idea of the show, and this is the only time we see the show.
S: Do dressers have understudies?
K: Yes! We call them ‘swings’ and once a show officially Opens, each dresser is required to type up their show track and submit it to the Supervisor which will be given to the dresser swing when they come in to learn our track. A swing will stay with the dresser for 3 performances, the 1st evening following along with the notes, watching and asking questions, the 2nd evening doing all of the pre-sets and activities that don’t involve the actors directly, and the 3rd evening doing it basically on their own with the dresser following closely and only jumping in when necessary. After the swing has trained on a track for 3 shows, they are then ‘on call’ for whenever the dresser may need a day off for any reason.
It’s common on a long running show like Hamilton for each dresser to have 2 or more trained swings at any time since we cannot have a vacant dresser slot and run the show. Most swing dressers learn many tracks on more than one show at a time. They only get paid when they are physically filling in on or learning a track, so to make ends meet they will learn a few tracks on several different shows. This cuts down on their availability for any one show at a time, which is why it’s safest for each dresser to have several swings at a time.
S: Is there anything we’d be surprised to know about working backstage?
K: They may be surprised to realize we are usually right off stage, like mere inches out of view. All of the backstage crew is. There’s usually a stage manager, several crew/prop guys, several wardrobe crew and a hair person. The backstage staff and choreography is usually just as full and specifically timed as what’s going on onstage.
S: What is the most enjoyable and most challenging parts of the job?
K: I’d say the most enjoyable part of my job is the sense of family that comes from being part of a show, whether between myself and my actor or between the others on the wardrobe crew or the whole company. It’s very much a team, and even though there may be some people you aren’t especially close with you know everyone in the building has each other’s backs no matter what. The most challenging part of my job is keeping focus at all times. It’s easy in a long run to lose focus during the run of the show when you know your cues so well you feel you could do them asleep. However, a dresser or any member of the company who is backstage, must always remain alert because it is a live show, and at any moment your actor, or any of them could come running off stage with a costume malfunction or needing anything from a tissue to a missing prop, or with an injury. Most of the time the shows run smoothly as planned of course, but this makes it all the harder to remain focused.
S: What is your most memorable theatrical experience either through work or as an audience member?
K: I think my most memorable experience through work must be back when I was on my first show, the 1998 revival of Cabaret, dressing Alan Cumming, and it was his last weekend. He had been with the show for about a year and a half, and everyone was very sad he was leaving, so to keep the mood light and happy (a dresser’s job!) I got permission from the Wardrobe Supervisor to wear one of Alan’s understudy’s costumes, and change along with him as the show progressed, so we were always wearing matching outfits!
While waiting backstage with him for Act 2 to start, (in matching black teddy, short black wig, beret, black tights, and my own matching black boots) all of a sudden when the music started he grabbed my hand and said “don’t look around, just run straight across the stage to the other side” and pushed me out on stage ahead of him! It was a scene where ‘The Emcee’ (Alan’s part) is dressed identically to the 6 ensemble girls on stage and they all run out and scramble around in circles, so as to hide the fact that ‘The Emcee’ is in the mix, before doing a Rockette style kick line, I ran out, and as instructed ran in a straight line across to exit the other side, however as I got closer to the other side there was a light tree on full power with bright red lights, and I couldn’t see an inch in front of me, so I left the stage like a blind person, slowly inching forward with both hands stretched out in front of me!! It was definitely memorable!
S: What advice would you give to your elementary school self?
K: I would tell myself not to get to upset or caught up in the day to day happenings, I hardly remember anything from elementary school. Just try and be kind to everyone, even the ‘un-cool’ kids, actually especially them, they need it most and to just always be yourself. There’s a quote from Dr. Seuss I enjoy: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” (but don’t use that as an excuse to be mean to anyone!)
S: Would you encourage kids to pursue creative endeavors backstage? How would you recommend they go about it?
K: I would definitely say it’s a worthwhile career to peruse. Especially to those who, like me, are not morning people or cannot see themselves sitting behind a desk each day. It’s a very social job, also very physical, so helps keep you in shape, and being Union is a very secure career. On the other hand, while your specific job at a show is secure, there is no telling how long that particular show will run, so you have to have the proper mindset to accept that at any moment, sometimes with little warning, your entire company may end…. usually with 1-2 weeks’ notice. You can contact the local Union house for the backstage specialty you are interested in, each has their own (wardrobe, hair + makeup, props/crew, stage management, even house staff and ushers!) and find out their requirements for joining. They vary greatly!
S: Working backstage as a dresser means you have to be able to work closely with the actors and other dressers. This is clearly a creative and collaborative process among you all–how do you all work together and make sure everyone is doing their part?
This mostly gets worked out during tech week, as far as what everyone’s part is, and that includes everyone in the building, from the dayworkers in wardrobe who must prep the costumes and make them ready for the show, to the backstage crew who are setting costumes, set pieces, checking lights and mics, to the actors who have to show up certain places during the show at very specific times. Once everyone’s assigned tasks are set, it’s Stage Managements job to make sure everyone is doing their part correctly. If someone misses a cue or a swing forgets something Stage Management will usually catch it, or at least be told about it, then that person will be called to explain themselves. As a team member, you never want to be the one who forgot something because everyone will know!
S: Every week I challenge my readers and students to try something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
K: I would say try something you’ve never done, but don’t think you like, such as an activity or even just eating a new food item. So many things that I like I never thought I would and if I hadn’t tried it I would be missing out! You might even find a new hobby you enjoy!
I cannot thank Kimmie enough for answering my students and my questions. This was such a thorough explanation of not only her role as a member of the backstage team of a show, but how her role connects with all of the other backstage roles. It is extremely evident to me that, while Kimmie might not have been cut out for Kindergarten where I feel comfortable with my students, I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel in her role. This was such a fun perspective to view a performance through, and my students and I have learned so much. As if Kimmie’s many responsibilities as a dresser aren’t enough, she also advocates for and helps raise money for the New Jersey Freedom Farm, which you can support here. In addition to supporting the animals and organization, she raffles off one-of-a-kind prizes on her Instagram account, @dunkinscout. I look forward to my students taking on her challenge and hope to see my readers’ responses in comments.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP