a little cue and ayyyye

personal

Yesterday I had the pleasure of skyping in to my buddy Matt’s Stage Management class out at University of California Irvine to talk about CATS and my time in the New York Theatre scene.  The students emailed in a ton of questions that I had prepared answers to, but we didn’t get to address all of them in the short hour we had.  So, I decided to post them here!

Enjoy learning a little about my weird world.

Q: How did you get involved in the theater?

I knew I wanted to be a performer after singing a very on-key rendition of “Little Doo Scoop” for my mom on our back patio in Connecticut in 1994.  Performing has always been my passion and I have been blessed with an incredibly supportive family (mom, dad, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, pets, you know who have endlessly encouraged me to pursue this career, even throughout times when I’ve thought about giving up.
After high school, I wanted to attend Marymount Manhattan College in New York for Musical Theatre; but my mom encouraged me to go to Western Connecticut State University because they had an up-and-coming Theatre Arts program and it was about fifteen minutes from where I lived (hey, in-state tuition!).  I went there kicking and screaming but, in hindsight, it was the best decision I ever made.  WCSU’s Theatre Program encouraged (required) its students to participate in all aspects of a production; so  performers didn’t just perform, they had to join one of the technical teams on a show in order to receive credit for mandatory courses.  Subsequently, I developed a passion for scenic painting and design; one I would never have found had I not attended WCSU.  It did not diminish my desire to perform, but ultimately strengthened my skills and made me a more well-rounded artist.
*My mom was right about the “up-and-coming Theatre Arts program.”  When I came in as a freshman in 2009, their BA in Performance was a non-audition program.  By year’s end, they had developed a BA in Musical Theatre that was audition-based, and today they have a $98 million Performing Arts Center and a BFA in Musical Theatre, along with many other amazing degrees.

Q: What was your first professional gig, and how did you land the job? Has working on costumes/wardrobes always been your career goal, and if not, how did you start working in that field?

My first professional wardrobe gig was a dresser position on a new musical at New World Stages called Heathers, based on the 1988 cult classic of the same name.  My sophomore year of college, before discovering my love for scenic painting, I worked wardrobe for one of the MainStage productions to fulfill hours for a class.  I hated it.  I promised myself I would never do costumes again (my life is looking really hilarious now).  Years later, during my first month living in New York in early 2014, I was working as a waitress at a pub near Madison Square Garden and I was miserable.  I happened to ask a friend of mine one night who worked at Sleep No More if she was in need of any scenic painters.  She wasn’t, but had been offered a dresser’s position on a show that she couldn’t take, asked if I would be interested, and I said yes (because anything, even costumes, would have been better than my waitressing job).  I interviewed with a woman who, at the time, was the Wardrobe Supervisor for Heathers and she hired me.  She was fired three days into tech, and production hired a wonderful man named John Furrow to take her place.  Two years later, John offered me a position on his wardrobe team dressing the Broadway Revival of CATS.  Life is funny that way.

 Did you ever think you would be in this profession when you first started college?

HA, no.

 What’s your best memory on the Heathers?

In the opening number of Heathers, John and I had to quick change Veronica’s character from frumpy to popular.  We had gotten it down to a science, so that by the time she ran out to finish the song, we were walking through the crossover back to the dressing rooms.  The applause that erupted on Opening Night when she came out actually made me cry; because I knew I had been a part of making that moment happen.  It was real magical.
Also they had a champagne fountain at the Opening Night party.  It’s definitely between that moment and the champagne fountain.

 What was your favorite show that you’ve ever worked on and why?

I’m about to go into my 17th production (doing wardrobe) in New York; it’s so hard to choose a favorite. I’ve loved them all for different reasons; there were a handful I totally hated.  I’ll give you three: Heathers for being my first show, CATS for being my first Broadway show, and Songbird for bringing me the gift of gorgeous music and beautiful friendships (and Himself and Nora for bringing me the gifts of Whitney Bashor — my friend, mentor, and vocal coach. And Lonesome Traveler for bringing me real tight friendships.  I just gave you five because this is really hard.)
 What’s it like working on a Broadway show? Is it like a dream come true?
Yes and no.  Yes, because Broadway has always been my dream; but working on Broadway is kind of like hanging out with your favorite celebrity — you realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be; and if you’ve worked professionally it’s not all that different from your previous shows.  But yes, it was a dream come true.  It was magical that for eighteen months I got to wear that badge of honor when people asked me where I worked and I could respond with “The Broadway Revival of CATS” — it just sounds good, and everyone, even non-theatre folk, knows CATS.
 How is it different working in regional vs. Broadway theaters?
I’ve never worked regionally doing wardrobe — only Off and on Broadway.  Honestly, it really depends on the theater and the production company.  I have been in some stellar Off-Broadway houses.  But I was spoiled having Heathers as my very first experience, because it set the bar pretty high for future Off-Broadway productions that weren’t as commercial.  Working on Broadway is obviously best of the best; but even Broadway shows tier differently perks-wise.

Did all of your training and previous work experience prepare you for Broadway? What all was still new when you started working on Cats?

Another yes and no.  I felt ready and not ready all at the same time.  I knew I would be taken care of with John as my supervisor; he knew my strengths, he knew my weaknesses, and knew that this wasn’t my ultimate career goal because he met me during a time when I was just starting out in this city and I had made it very clear to him that performing was my top priority.  He even said to me when he offered the job to me that it would be a great opportunity if I was still auditioning (like he needed to sell me on the idea of working on Broadway).  But I learned more than I could have ever imagined working as a dresser on CATS.  I was a literal tadpole in a sea of other dressers, performers, and technicians who had been in this business for decades and had so much to teach me.  
The best advice I can offer when you’re being thrown into something you’re not quite ready for, especially in this business, is to outwardly express your willingness to learn.  People don’t want to work with someone who thinks they know it all; especially when they’re the new kid.  Despite the fact that I had worked Off-Broadway for two and a half years prior to CATS, I was still new.  I’m still new; I only have one Broadway show under my belt and that may seem like a big deal, but to the people who have worked in this industry for years, it’s only the beginning.

 What is the biggest challenge you face in your field of work backstage?

Dealing with unprofessional behavior from others.  I was severely bullied at CATS by one of my colleagues, which ended up making my experience there really hard.  I have definitely been prone to unprofessional behavior before on shows, but this was, by far, the worst.  Yet the biggest challenge wasn’t just walking into the building every day knowing I had to deal with this person, it was walking out of the building each night still holding onto my integrity by choosing not to engage with the unprofessional behavior.  Not biting back was one of the hardest things I’ve every had to do (I bit back once, it wasn’t really a bite so much as a nibble, but I was really hungover, so here we are).

 What would you say is the most difficult part of doing wardrobe for a major production?

That goes hand-in-hand with professionalism; knowing your place and respecting others.  Being a Wardrobe Supervisor and being a dresser are two very different titles.  Aside from Heathers, CATS was the only other show where I wasn’t my own boss. Luckily, on both productions I had the same supervisor so it was an easier adjustment, but to alternate between Wardrobe Supervisor and Dresser can be really tricky sometimes; you never want to be that person who micro manages everyone — especially when it’s not your job to.

How involved are in the design process? Were you able to adjust or change any aspects of the costumes for CATS?

As a dresser? Not at all.  As a Wardrobe Supervisor?  Almost not at all.  
Prior to load-in for a show, your only job is to discuss how you’re going to handle the costumes that are given to you.  Once the costumes are in the building and on the bodies, it’s more within your jurisdiction to dictate the functionality of the costumes.  That becomes your conversation with the design team — how the costumes function and, if any pieces are interfering with the execution of the show, what changes need to be made.  Once the show is open, the design team usually isn’t around anymore, so as the supervisor, you are in charge of any decisions that come along with costumes.  However, if it becomes a design issue, it must still go through the designer should any changes need to be made to a costume piece.
I have been on Off-Broadway productions where I am the Assistant Designer in addition to being the Wardrobe Supervisor.  This gives you a little more control over the design of the costumes, but all final approval must still go through the Designer.

 What types of communication do you have with the stage manager for a given production?

If there is ever any type of issue backstage; a cast member is running late getting dressed prior to places call, a quick change has gone awry and an actor will miss their entrance, or you witness something happen on stage that needs to be documented in a performance report — you go to stage management.  For CATS, we had a Production Stage Manager, a Stage Manager, and an Assistant Stage Manager.  Most times, our communication with Stage Management was in regards to the actors safety.  Many of our cats were injured on this show and when that happened, we would need to alert Stage Management if they didn’t already know. 

Another major communication with Stage Management occurred during the times when we would have a mid-show switch out.  If an actor was injured or sick halfway through an act or performance, Stage Management would announce it over the backstage intercom and we would keep them posted as we dressed the understudy on how long it would take them to get on stage.

What’s the most interesting thing that you have experienced or witnessed so far on the production? Most incredible? The best failure?

On CATS especially, it was amazing and interesting to see how easily and quickly they adapted to their surroundings — especially during emergency situations.
Just one story on a laundry list of instances: In December of 2016, we got struck with what we refer to as “The Jellicle Flu,” where almost the entire female ensemble had the flu.  We did a ton of split tracks, and very rapidly ran out of swings.  One of our Grizabella understudies went on for a cat she didn’t even have an assigned costume for just because we needed a body and voice on stage.  It was so bad that our actress who played Jennyanydots was also out and we had nobody to cover her.  She does a giant tap number immediately following the opening number, so this was a big deal.  So our dance captain, Corey John Snide, a MAN…he’s a man…dressed up in her little fringe dress and tapped as Jennyanydots in that number and absolutely CRUSHED IT.

 Were there any crazy wardrobe malfunctions that you’ve ever seen while doing a show?

I’m just going to leave this here.

IMG_0582.jpg

 What type of quick solutions did you have to come up with to solve any costume problems?

Usually as a dresser, you wear an apron that has any emergency supplies inside it; safety pins, super glue, thread and needle, spare snaps, etc.  You must be able to think on your feet while also remembering that some malfunctions can’t be fixed in under five seconds. Wardrobe malfunctions happen all the time; you and your actors just have to roll with the punches when they do.  A lot of actors came off stage with untied tails or had shoe malfunctions where they kicked off their shoes and went on stage shoeless, then came off stage to brand new shoe laces.  Things happen and you just have to breathe into it.  Most times, it’s out of your control.

 Do you have any memorable audience?

Mamie Parris, our Grizabella, tried to snatch a man’s cell phone from his hands as he sat in the front row on his phone during “Memory,” the most famous frickin’ number in the whole show.  It was totally warranted, and I will forever love her for that moment.

 When you apply for work, do you ever do dual applications for backstage and stage for the same production?

No, I like to keep that separate.  If I’m submitting for something I see myself fit to perform in, I won’t submit to execute the costumes.  Most of the work I get wardrobe-wise is word-of-mouth anyway, so it usually doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the projects I submit for performing-wise.

 What keeps you motivated? What makes you keep standing on the stage? What is the most difficult step in your creative process? How do you overcome it?

Nothing lasts forever; which sounds really negative and morbid; but it’s more so a reminder to keep moving forward while simultaneously basking in the glory of your successes and failures.  A lot of that goes into my creative process as a performer because it can be discouraging and motivating to work in this industry in a capacity that isn’t necessarily what I want a career in, but keeps me acclimated to the business.  I love that I have created a dual career for myself here; I love that I’ve built connections with people both on and off stage who know me in two different capacities and subsequently respect me for what I do on both ends of the spectrum.  I have never met an actor I’ve dressed who heard I was a performer and scoffed — they always want to know more. I’ve also never met an actor I’ve worked with on stage who has scoffed at my “day job” working in costumes.
Supporting each other through those alternative careers is so massively crucial to our creative process because it is so rare that we will consistently get a paycheck from this business.  You must find joy outside of your artistic endeavors because there will be times when pursuing success in this industry will get you down, and you will have to take a step away, even if it’s for a day or a week or a year.  To have something in your back pocket that brings you joy outside of relentlessly pursuing a lasting career in the arts will be your best kept secret.

 What do you wish you would have known or done prior to starting your career in theater?

I wouldn’t change a moment of the journey I’ve been on.  But in truth, I wish I had opened myself up more in college — to reading more plays, seeing more productions, and knowing a little more about this business before diving in headfirst.  But then I wouldn’t have this story to share, so would I really change anything?  Probably not.

 What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned by working as both a performer and backstage?

The way you treat the people around you goes farther than any amount of skill or talent you may have.  I don’t work in this business because I know what I’m doing; I work in this business because people like working with me.  If you’re difficult to work with, most of the time, you will not have the career you hope for.  So treat people with respect, even when they don’t always deserve it, because you never know who will be the next Jerry Mitchell or Bernie Telsey. You never know who’s going to help you along in your journey towards success.
xo,
T

One thought on “a little cue and ayyyye

  1. I loved your candid replies to these questions…so informative, and written in such a conversational style. You really have a gift! Great encouragement for any theater wannabes!

    Liked by 1 person

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