The dresser is a role that is almost as synonymous with the tradition of theatre as the actor. So ingrained is ‘the dresser’ in our theatre culture that the role has had an entire play and film dedicated to it (The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, which in its 2015 TV outing starred veteran actors and knights of the realm Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Anthony Hopkins) and how many jobs in theatre, except perhaps the producer, can lay claim to that?
Earlier in 2018 at the annual London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, designer John Galliano paid tribute to the ‘behind-the-scenes heroes of theatre’ – the dressers, again highlighting the value of the role. You can read more about the moment here on Kozzii.
But for a job so important to the workings of theatre, why is it often misunderstood?
It is a popular misconception that the dresser is little more than someone who puts clothes on the actors, or that their job is simply that of a laundry maid. Whilst both these tasks are part of the role (and important ones – actors can get VERY sweaty) that is not where the job begins and ends.
So how would the dressers job best be described? Well, to further confuse the matter, the role can vary so vastly from show to show and venue to venue – often blurring the lines between wardrobe and ASM duties.
But in essence, it would be much more accurate to see the dresser’s role as a maintainer of the original design vision (Much like a director would have an assistant to maintain the show after they depart.) It is the dressers job to ensure the actor is stepping out onstage looking how the designer intended. The original designs are almost archival in their purpose, and it is the dressers job to make sure the integrity and accuracy of the designs are being maintained through each performance. This is often done through the instruction of the Head of Wardrobe.
Above and beyond…
Another often important but not official role of the dresser can be the emotional support they offer to the performer. The dresser is usually the member of the backstage crew who has the most direct contact with the actors. Many dressers become a real lifeline to actors during a long run, picking up quickly on their needs and acting as a sounding board for their worries and insecurities during a performance. Whilst this aspect of the role is not necessary (and not desirable for many dressers), it is this pastoral care that can perhaps account for the importance of the role in the mind of the collective theatre community.
As the de facto first line of defence between the backstage and onstage worlds, many dressers also take it upon themselves to be the unofficial ‘first response’, even in non-costume related emergencies. They can often be seen dutifully dolling out plasters, mints, water, lip balm, tissues, hand sanitiser, tiger balm and back rubs (just kidding…well sort of) to actors when they need them.
With that in mind, it’s clear to see that the dresser deservedly can lay claim to the title of backstage hero. These passionate skilled professionals can be found backstage quietly ensuring the smooth running of the show often with little to no thanks.
Anyone who works in theatre knows that a show is a team effort, and there are so many aspects of the performance that would not run as smoothly were it not for the job of a dresser. So dressers, Kozzii salutes you!
Oh, and actors…tip your dresser generously please, they almost certainly have gone above and beyond the call of duty for you on more than one occasion, recognise this appropriately.