“Wear kneepads, there’s lots of kneeling involved,” says Lacie Bonanni, 36, who works as a so-called dresser, a theatrical worker who helps actors into and out of their costumes. Bonanni got her start on Broadway 11 years ago on a show called “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” which involved stripping off a multitude of skintight bodysuits.
Although Bonanni’s husband occasionally jokes about her taking people’s clothes off for a living, her skills don’t necessarily translate outside the theater, where the focus of undressing is never singularly speed and where sometimes fumbling is part of the fun. During a show, it’s not uncommon that a complete costume change, including mask and shoes, needs to happen in less than 30 seconds.
Let the person you’re disrobing do some of the work. Bonanni tends to go for the bottom half of the body and lets the actor undress up top. At first, you both might stumble, reach for the same garment simultaneously, bump heads even. You’ll get faster as you become more familiar with clothing and bodies. By the time a show opens, costume changes should feel like a choreographed dance.
Undressing happens mostly in a theater’s darkened wings and backstage. “Wear a headlight,” says Bonanni, who learned the craft from her mother, a longtime dresser on shows like “Rent” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Costumes get what wardrobe people call “quick rigged,” which mostly means replacing buttons with Velcro. Some garb is unavoidably time-consuming. “A corset is the thing you’re dreading,” Bonanni says.
Once you’ve got a person’s clothing off, toss it into a basket to be sorted and cleaned later. Unless, of course, you’re required to put the same outfit back on, as Bonanni had to do repeatedly for the musical “Groundhog Day.” In that case, keep it organized and lay it out in such a way so that the sweat can dry. Backstage is often hectic and crowded; don’t start frantically grabbing at someone’s garments or you’ll exacerbate their nervousness and discomfort. The person needs to trust you. “You want them to feel like they’re in a safe space,” Bonanni says.