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What Do People Do All Day: Backstage at the theater

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WORLD Radio - What Do People Do All Day: Backstage at the theater

A costume handler at Sight and Sound Theater helps actors through ups and downs backstage


Backstage at Sight and Sound Theater in Branson, Missouri. Photo courtesy of CJ McElhiney

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 25th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we thank you for that! Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: one in our occasional series called What Do People Do All Day? This time, people working in live theater.

A lot happens behind the scenes. Sometimes it gets a little chaotic. Set changes, lights, sound, and costumes.

REICHARD: WORLD Associate Correspondent Leah Johansen went backstage near my neck of the woods here in the Ozarks to talk with a person who can change one outfit to another in mere seconds: a professional costume quick changer.

LEAH JOHANSEN, REPORTER: It’s a Wednesday afternoon at Sight and Sound Theater in Branson, Missouri. The stage is hidden behind a thick, ornate curtain, deep jewel tones and gold trim.

SHOW BEGINNING: The Author’s hand is in every detail. Because what you are about to see is my story.

As the curtain rises, it reveals massive two-story set pieces, the ancient city of Susa.

SHOW BEGINNING: In the days when King Xerxes was seated on the throne.

This is a production of Queen Esther, the latest musical here at Sight and Sound. But what is happening on the stage is just one piece of the puzzle.

Backstage, there are dozens of people working to keep the show running smoothly.

CJ McELHINEY: Normally, you don't even notice us. You’re not supposed to, we change the clothes.

That’s CJ McElhiney. She works with costumes during the show, all 1400 costumes.

McELHINEY: I lead a team of 3 dressers to make all of the quick changes happen backstage.

A quick change is what happens when an actor has less than three minutes to change their costume.

McELHINEY: We have 55 actors, 257 quick changes, in 9 different locations that they could change plus their dressing rooms. That means the dressers walk about four miles a show.

Sometimes, an actor has a lot of time to make the change. Or they only need to swap their shawl or their jacket. Other times, it's not that simple.

McELHINEY: It's not just put the costume on and zip it up. It's put the custom on zip it, Make sure the shoulders are attached, snap it, get her wrist elastics on, put the collar on, put the headdress on, magnet it to the wig, then send her over to put on her makeup.

The theater does about 10 performances every week. McElhiney is backstage for each one.

McELHINEY: So these are the costume carts, and we've got the undergarment and then an overlay and then the vest that snaps on at the shoulders.

There’s a lot going on backstage, so every quick change has to be precisely planned out and practiced.

McELHINEY: So typically we spend one to two days on quick change rehearsals, nine to 10 hours a day.

But all the rehearsal time in the world can’t guarantee perfection.

McELHINEY: That is a big part of my job, is to think about the worst case scenario and then be ready for it. You know something’s gonna go wrong, it’s just a matter of what it is and what’s the best way to keep the show going on so that the audience has no clue.

Sometimes, there are bigger problems than a broken zipper. Last year, the theater performed the story of Jesus. In one of the shows, the lead actor ran into some trouble.

McELHINEY: One day, he came running off, got undressed. We got the top on and then look down and he did not have his pants on.

The actor was wearing shorts, but he’d forgotten to put on his costume pants.

McELHINEY: So they're super tight fitting. So to get it on, we have to soak it in vodka, otherwise it is not slick enough and it just gets stuck on his sweat.

On top of that, the actor only had a minute and 23 seconds before he had to be back onstage.

McELHINEY: So, I had to sprint to his dressing room, grab them, douse them in vodka and pull open the legs. Had to get that on and then put the shorts that he wears over top of it and we made it. But it was insanely fast. Those are the moments that I love when things happen at our job. It’s when something goes wrong, that’s the adrenaline rush, of like, okay, this is when I get to see what I’m made of and what my team is made of.

The adrenaline rush isn’t the only thing McElhiney loves about her job.

McELHINEY: We find that as dressers, we are the main people that the cast talks to during the run of a a show because they’ll they’ll run off stage from a scene and if it’s been the best work they have ever put on the stage or if it totally bombed, we as dressers are the ones who are right there as they’re getting into their next costume, so we see them in a state of vulnerability.

That vulnerability means that there has to be a lot of trust between the actors and the dressers.

McElhiney and her team try to find opportunities to pray for the actors during every show.

McELHINEY: Yes, they’re Bible stories but there's there's so much weight to what they're telling, to get to come alongside them and support them backstage and really pray over them before they go on to do some of these difficult scenes.

Sometimes, the actors don’t even know that McElhiney is praying for them in that moment. Just like the audience has no idea what is going on backstage, unseen.

McELHINEY: And, it has opened my eyes to the love that God has for every single one of us. Whether or not I am noticing the people around me, he always is.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leah Johansen in Branson, Missouri.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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