ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Quick-Change

News   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Quick-Change Playbill.com answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions.
Marissa Perry as Tracy in the Weston Playhouse Hairspray.
Marissa Perry as Tracy in the Weston Playhouse Hairspray. Photo by Hubert Schriebl

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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.

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This week's question comes from Dit Lopez of Seattle, WA.

Question: How do actors and actresses change costumes so quickly during a show? Answer: For this question, we decided to focus on one particular quick change: in Hairspray, the change that Tracy and Edna have to make during the song "Welcome to the 60s." During that song, Tracy (the lead, a teenage dance champion) and Edna (her mom, played by a man) visit Mr. Pinky's clothes shop and transform from their old clothes into matching turquoise, white and purple psychedelic dresses.

AskPlaybill.com spoke to Megan Bowers, Tracy's dresser throughout the show (who helps out with both the Edna and Tracy change during this song), and Marissa Perry, the actress who began playing Tracy April 15 after going on as the standby about 20 times over the last six months. (Perry also played Tracy in one of the first regional theatre productions of Hairspray — at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.)

Edna's change happens first. Right behind the Mr. Pinky's set, Bowers and Joe Armon, who is Edna's dresser, "puddle" Edna's dress on the floor, meaning they splay it out so that the performer can step into it easily. Tracy's dress is puddled onto the floor a little further upstage.

The actor playing Edna — currently George Wendt — exits through the main doors of Mr. Pinky's in the middle of the stage, and the change occurs behind the set. Armon runs over and takes off Edna's housecoat. Edna gets out of her shoes and walks into the middle of the dress on the floor. Armon and Bowers pull the dress up and onto Edna's arms. Meanwhile, two other people swap out Edna's wig and pin on another. Armon zips up the back of the dress while Bowers puts on Edna's shoes. The process takes about 45 seconds or so, Bowers, estimates.

As Edna re-enters the song through those same middle doors, Bowers scoots along the floor (so as not to be seen), pulling Tracy's dress downstage so that it's in the same place Edna's dress was (if Tracy changes too far upstage, she won't be hidden behind the set, and people in the mezzanine will be able to see the change).

Tracy exits through the same middle doors, and a similar process occurs — except Bowers and Armon switch roles, more or less. We'll let Perry, the actress playing Tracy, explain: "As I go through the doors, I start to unsnap my shirt. Megan is in front of me, Joe behind me. Megan [reaches around and] unsnaps the back of my skirt. She pulls the skirt down. I take off my shoes. We switch places, so that I'm facing Joe and my back is to Megan. That moment is when I step into the dress. The dress is laid out very nicely and very organized. Joe pulls it up. I put my hands right through the sleeves. Megan zips me, and I put myself into the '60s heels, as Joe is holding the shoe open." Armon then closes the shoes, which are specially-rigged for quick changes: Each shoe is fastened by a small hook, similar to the hook on a bra.

Tracy's change is quicker than Edna's, taking only 25 to 30 seconds, Bowers estimates (she doesn't have to change her wig like Edna does). Bowers, who has been the dresser for Tracy since October, says she's had her close calls during the change, but nothing too horrible has happened. "I think the zipper is the scariest part," she says, referring to the zipper on the back of the dress. "You have to always make sure you're carefully doing it. With that fabric, it's like a chiffon; if it gets stuck, it's probably not going to go up in time."

When the zipper gets stuck, Bowers says, "I just say, 'Your zipper's stuck and we don't have enough time. Try not to turn around as much.'" But, she adds, "There are times when you can have coffee and tea afterwards. We're like, 'That was quick.'"

One general rule of thumb in quick changes, Bowers says, is, "the less the actor can do in a quick change, the better. If they're going through the sleeves or they're trying to button it, then you're fighting with them to get it done. The more relaxed they can be, the more still they can be, the better."

Perry says the one time this particular change tripped her up was during her final dress rehearsal, before her first time going on as a standby. "I tried to help," she says. "Joe put my sleeve on instead of just putting my arms out and letting him put the sleeve on. I tried to help, which is the number one thing you don't do, which I didn't know, because it was my first time on Broadway. The sleeve got stuck, it got twisted, we had to stop the rehearsal. Your instinct is to help, and you can't. It was a good lesson to learn. I'm glad I learned it during rehearsal."

How does Perry feel during the quick change? "It is tiring to know that you're coming offstage, but you don't get to relax," she says. But changing in front of people doesn't bother her. "I just luckily happen to be one of those people who really have no shame," she says. During the show, under her clothes, she's wearing a kind of fat suit — "it's like a dance leotard except it's got boob padding, and I am padded around my midsection, sides and my back." During the change described above, she acknowledges, "You can see a little of my butt, but I don't mind. It kind of creeps out a little bit. You can probably see the outer edges of it. But it's a good view."

Bowers serves as Perry's support system throughout the show. She'll ask Perry how she's doing, and she wears an apron with pockets to carry things Perry might need, such as a water bottle, towel, mints, tissues, lip balm and an extra pair of stockings, which tend to rip. She also maintains Perry's clothes and will tidy up her dressing room a bit during the show, especially if the actress is having guests afterwards. "A big part of it is to be supportive of them and make their job a little easier," Bowers says.

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