Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
If your question is used in our column, you will receive a Playbill.com mug.
This week's question comes from Christina M. Tassi of Brewster, NY.
Question: With actors dancing around onstage, costumes must get sweaty. How often do costumes get washed? Answer: According to Actor's Equity, any costume piece that touches an actor's skin must be washed every day. This includes items like tights, T-shirts and socks, and each actor usually is provided with multiple sets. For an Off-Broadway show like Altar Boyz, which has only five actors whose costumes are assembled from street clothes, washing the costumes is fairly easy. For larger shows with more elaborate costumes, such as The Phantom of the Opera, caring for the costumes is a more complicated undertaking.
Joanna Zischang, the wardrobe supervisor for Altar Boyz, says that since there is so much dancing in the show, it's a blessing to be able to throw everything in the washing machine. By the final curtain, she says, "Everything pretty much needs it." Because it is such a small cast, Zischang works solo to maintain and repair the costumes. This is made easier in that each character has only one costume that he wears for the entirety of the show. A typical day sees Zischang arriving at 5:30 for an 8 PM show, and immediately loading the washing machine. "I generally stay after the show at night and do laundry, too, but there's more than I can do in that time span," she says. Zischang then begins pressing every costume piece — something that is not generally required but that she personally thinks is important. "I press absolutely everything that goes onstage — except for the socks. If it's onstage and people are going to look at it, I press it," says Zischang. "That's just me."
Scott Westervelt, who has been with The Phantom of the Opera for roughly 15 years and its wardrobe supervisor for the last five, has exactly 174 costumes to maintain. A lot of those costumes are made of wool or rayon, and most have extensive beading or trim, meaning that they are not machine washable. Because of that, the costumes are on a rotating, twice-weekly dry cleaning schedule, with pickups on Monday and Thursday nights.
Since there are many "operas" within the show, most of the characters have multiple costumes. Christine alone has eight, ranging from her red, green, and gold slave girl costume at the top of the show to her heavily beaded gown for "Masquerade," but the Phantom is the only character that has two complete, identical suits. These are alternated nightly and between afternoon and evening performances. In case of rips or tears, there is a full-time stitcher on hand, and a large board resides in the wardrobe department to keep track of the whereabouts and repairs needed for each costume.
Westervelt's day usually begins at 1 PM for an 8 PM show, where he spends the next four hours tending to laundry and repairs with the help of his assistant and the stitcher. He is back in at 7 PM and joined by the show's 16 dressers. Each actors who plays a lead character — the Phantom, Christine, Carlotta and Raoul — has his or her own dresser, and then there is roughly one dresser for every two actors.
There is one thing that makes Westervelt's job a little easier. Of the 174 costumes in the show, 18 belong to mannequins who are posed along the grand staircase for the song "Masquerade." Their costumes don't have to be washed very often.
Lindsey Wilson, who is temporarily filling in for Zachary Pincus-Roth, is a theatre writer whose work has also been seen in The Syracuse Post-Standard. She can be reached by emailing LindseyAnnWilson@gmail.com