A Life in the Theatre: Wardrobe Supervisor Alyce Gilbert

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Wardrobe Supervisor Alyce Gilbert Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
Wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert
Wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert Photo by Joan Marcus

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Some decades ago, in a commercial for Barneys, a young Barney, discussing future career choices, told the other kids on the block: “You’re all going to need clothes.” Alyce Gilbert, who has worked on and Off-Broadway for nearly 40 years and these days is the wardrobe supervisor for Wicked, adopted that philosophy long ago. “One thing about wardrobe,” Gilbert says backstage at the Gershwin Theatre, “is that it’s always the necessary job. Someone needs to take care of it. The actors need it, the designers need it, everyone needs it. And it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not the show works. It’s nice to be in that position, to feel that whether the show is good, bad or indifferent—and even those that aren’t successful have been rewarding and fascinating to work on—this is a job that needs to be done.”

Just what is it that wardrobe supervisors do? “We are responsible,” Gilbert says, “for the maintenance of all the clothes—more than 300 costumes for Wicked, including those for the chorus, the swings and the understudies. We don’t make the clothes—that’s done by costume shops all over the city. For Wicked, there are six costume shops, four shoemakers and two milliners. We’re involved with the clothes pretty much from the moment they enter the theatre—with everything that happens to them in terms of repair, cleaning and laundry, of which there’s a great deal in this show. The wardrobe supervisor hires the staff that performs these functions—including the 11 staffers who regularly dress this show during performances. And I deal with the planning of any quick changes that are necessary.”

Those quick changes, she says, can sometimes be really fast. “My most famous was the classic quick change at the end of A Chorus Line, when the cast changed from rehearsal clothes to the formal finale. In Wicked, we have a change involving the two witches, Glinda and Elphaba, in which they have less than 30 seconds to get out of their dresses and get into other dresses, put on hats and have things happen with their wigs. To do it, there are two dressers and a hairdresser.” Making it work, she says, is all in the planning—“of every step of the movement. Thirty seconds is much longer than you think it is. You can always get dressed much faster than you think. But you can’t do it until you plan it and until you rehearse it. And you can always change a woman much faster than you can change a man.”

Why is that? Are men just naturally slower? No. “Generally, men’s garments are in more pieces, and the pieces, the shirts and trousers, are often of different weights. That’s what makes it difficult. And it’s much more difficult to make a man’s costume into something that’s going to involve just one zipper. It’s easier to do that with women’s clothes.” Gilbert was born in Milwaukee and became interested in costumes at the early age of 12, when she began working with a touring children’s company called the Playground Trailer Theatre, which was run by that city’s recreation department and went around town doing shows like Peter Rabbit and The Ugly Duckling for very small children.

“It performed three times a day in three playgrounds. It had someone who drove around the folding theatre, someone who dealt with scenery and someone who was a graduate student in theatre who was the director and was also in charge of making sure the cast got from place to place. The costumes arrived in a basket from a woman who made them. They were the kind of clothes that fit many people. And the theatre suddenly found out that things happen to clothes when people wear them. So by default, I wound up maintaining the costumes. No one else had those skills or knew quite what to do. Someone would step on the butterfly’s wing, and I would stitch it up with my needle and thread.”

Gilbert continued to work with costumes in high school, and when she entered the University of Denver she was given assistantships in the costume department, dressing all the shows. “And when I came to New York, the same thing happened.” That was in the late 1960’s. Her first show was Ballad for a Firing Squad, an unsuccessful Off-Broadway remake of an equally unsuccessful Broadway musical called Mata Hari; it had a very brief run at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village.

Gilbert worked on about 25 Off-Broadway shows in the next several years, with legendary costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge and others. One stint involved getting to know Tennessee Williams on his play In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. She got work at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, spending her days as a clerk in a law firm’s library—“that was the way you could stretch an Off-Broadway salary.” Her first Broadway show was Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, which started at the Public and with which she was involved through its entire record-breaking 15-year run. Her other Broadway credits include Ballroom, Dreamgirls, Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies and Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. These days she also supervises the Wicked touring and Chicago companies.

What’s next for Gilbert? Well, in a sense it’s back to the future. “There’s a revival of A Chorus Line coming to Broadway this fall, and I will probably be involved in some way,” she says. “I spent many years dealing with all its companies. And some of the information and knowledge I have will be useful again.”

But for the moment, she is happy where she is. “Wicked is really fascinating,” she says. “It has so much to it. It really pulls you in.”

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