Quick Changes – The Magic Happens in the Wings

LA Opera Dresser Shelley Graves-Jimenez speaks about the Macbeth assassins costume to guests at the company's Newcomer Event

LA Opera Dresser Shelley Graves-Jimenez speaks about the Macbeth assassins costume to guests at the company’s Newcomer Event

Ever wonder how an artist steps off stage, then minutes later magically returns in a whole new get-up? While they’re in the wings, they’re in the hands of a dresser, that’s how. You’ll find dressers backstage at most large-scale live performances.

We spent a few minutes with Shelley Graves-Jimenez, one of LA Opera’s dressers, who told us what it’s like to be a dresser in the wings during an LA Opera performance.

Dressers make sure that the performer they’re assigned to can focus on their performance and not whether their costume is right. From head to toe, Graves-Jimenez and her colleagues ensure every piece of an artist’s costume is on, secure, and comfortable before they hit the stage. “Nothing they’re wearing should distract them,” she says.

But a dresser’s work doesn’t start on performance night. During Moby Dick, for example, Graves-Jimenez was assigned to Jacqueline Echols who played, Pip. When Pip is lost at sea, she is hoisted 15-20 feet in the air and “flies” across the stage, pulled by two crew members. Long before the rehearsals, Graves-Jimenez and Echols worked together with the harness, doing fly checks to make sure each step of the dressing process was choreographed and Echols would be comfortable as she sang.

During La Boheme, Graves-Jimenez worked with several of the women choristers whose costumes included corsets. “Each artist has a preference,” she explained. “Some like the structure the corset provides, while others want to have room to breathe.” Over the years, Shelley has helped principal singers and children in the chorus quickly change in and out of many, many costumes.

So what brought her to this important role? Graves-Jimenez has been doing this kind of work for nearly 27 years. After completing her undergraduate degree at CSUF, she ventured into special effects makeup. After one movie, she opted for something else, ending up at Disneyland in their Talent Issue department. “I’m going to date myself,” says Graves-Jimenez, “I was on the original Beauty and the Beast wardrobe crew and dressed Tinker Bell at the top of the Matterhorn.”

While she doesn’t know who she will be assigned to for Macbeth just yet, she’s sure to have her hands full. As with every production, the lead wardrobe supervisor will assign dressers based on a variety of factors. Sometimes it’s by height, or because their personalities work well with the artist or because of their dressing experience. There will be approximately 19 dressers backstage helping the principal cast, 52 choristers, 9 dancers, and 6 supers with countless costume changes (the witches alone will each have up to 6 costume changes).

At one point in the first half of Macbeth,  54 cast members (choristers and supers) have to make a quick change simultaneously. It’s a huge undertaking that needs to be choreographed to coordinate the exits and entrances of the chorus, paths to the quick change areas (where each chorister will have their own chair and a basket to “discard” costumes in order to minimize the possibility of costume pieces being lost). They will also reorganize costumes so they are out of the way for the next change. Basically, it’s a feat of enormous costume proportions – difficult to stage but also exciting to be a part of.

“I love my job,” says Graves-Jimenez. “When I’m not here, I’m at one of many other live performance venues, helping folks make the magic onstage while I make a little magic behind the scenes.”

To learn more about LA Opera and purchase tickets to Macbeth, click here.

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