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What’s the role of a Head Dresser? Kozzii investigates

Dressing is a role that not many people know much about, but is a vital part of any show if it is to run smoothly and on schedule. We spoke to Becky Hall, the head dresser at Palace Theatre Manchester, one of the busiest theatres in the country outside of London, and an ATG venue. She talked us through her job and what to expect if this is an area of the industry you might like to explore.

Describe your job role.

My job is to make sure that the cast in the show have all the correct costumes they need throughout the show to ensure it runs smoothly. I also help with changes eg. Quick changes throughout the show to make sure the actors get into the correct costumes on time for the scenes. I also help with the alterations and costume repairs in case of ‘accidents’ like in the show Mamma Mia I had to repair the sequin trousers.

What does your average day look like?

Arrive and then sort out the laundry which is then given to the actors, all the under-garments.
Pre-set, we have to organise the costumes for the actors/actresses, in correct order dependant on which scenes occur when in the show, first scene top of the pile, last scene bottom. These costumes are then stored in the ‘Wardrobe Village’ an area backstage, which stores all the costumes, then we set up the ‘wings’ which are the areas just off to the side, these are used for the quick changes during the show.

I have to be present during the show, to help the cast into costume and to perform the quick changes, in the wings, sometimes we have to perform on stage changes, where we hide behind bits of set and perform the change on stage, rather than in the ‘wings’.

At the end of the show, the quick change areas need to be clean and tidy. Any laundry from the stage is then taken to wardrobe and laundry collected from dressing rooms. Then it starts all over for the next show. We have to do this for every show.

What’s it like when a huge touring crew comes in?

When the bigger shows come touring through, we have to sometimes perform a ‘tech’ week, this is usually for new shows that are beginning their tour of the country, just to make sure the show is ready for the tour, ironing the kinks out and to build a framework for the other shows. We have to write ‘plots’, like basic instructions, these are helpful for both us and for other dressers in other theatres like a guideline for them.
When these bigger shows are in our theatre, the days can be hectic as you have more crew members than a smaller show (The smaller shows can have me and one other dresser) the bigger shows can have up to 10 dressers.
The bigger the show, the more people. On the bigger shows backstage is hectic during the first few days/weeks, as you have multiple crew members each learning and refining their plots. We have to refine our plots so that there is no break in the show due to the changes making sure the actors are there on stage in the correct costume for the correct scenes. During the first few shows, we’ll learn where the changes will be if they’re on stage or in the wings, and how to do them so that we’re not in the way of set changes and other crew.

I personally like the bigger shows as they have busier plots and it’s a lot to do, and there is quite a thrill and sense of accomplishment, when you nail that first show, making it go smoothly, is a good feeling.

What the best and the worst bits of the job?

There are a few ‘best bits’, seeing the costumes for the first time some of them are gorgeous, I get to meet a variety of different people and actors who are on the tour some of them are ‘famous’, I get to experience the inside of the ‘magic of the theatre’, I’ve met some great people working and it’s also a joy.

I wouldn’t say there’s anything ‘worst’ about the job, it can be unsociable hours wise, especially the double shows. Work cannot be guaranteed due to contracts, due to theatre workers being on zero-hour contracts.

Do you think a dressers job is misunderstood with many people thinking anyone can do it?

People do think it’s easy to be a dresser, there is a lot of pressure involved in the job role, we have many plots to follow and many times we haven’t had a proper run through before the curtains up and the show starts. We have to follow the plots from the previous theatre dressers. During the show, you have to be able to learn and follow the plots and you’re under pressure due to the quick change, when you have 30 seconds to change a person’s full costume it’s difficult. Then, you might have multiple actors or actresses needing quick changes at the same time, and the pressures on as you can’t be late as those actors might be needed and if it goes wrong can ruin the whole, scene/act. It’s a pressurised environment sometimes.

Do you have any added responsibilities as head dresser?

As Head Dresser I have the same responsibilities as the other dressers on the show when it comes to the costumes and doing the changes. And to make sure the wardrobe runs smoothly from the touring wardrobe mistress through to the dressers on the show.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get this sort of work?

I got this job through university a few years ago, I had a work experience role then got offered a position. Then worked up to First Dresser.
I’d say sending CV’s and emailing different theatre companies, also knowing someone in industry is also helpful, as you have a point of contact, you could also look through Linkedin and Stage Jobs Pro for touring positions, and find out who the managers are and send it directly to the person, making the first step is usually the hardest part. Once known it’s easier to get the work.

What else do you do when you’re not at the theatre?

When I’m away from the theatre, I am a dressmaker; I’m usually sewing and creating patterns. I create my own distinct designs, I love the process of creating the pattern and then sewing, watching it come together. I like creating clothing for others, due to the creative process of interpreting another person’s vision and then making it a reality. I love doing this and would love my own brand.

Do you have a role in wardrobe you would like to talk to us about? Get in touch to get featured.

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