Friday, August 05, 2016

Miss Jean Louis

Early in her childhood, Miss Jean Louis fell in love with Esther Williams and set as a goal to be a synchronized swimmer. She is careful to not be confused with the late costume designer who also was known for beautiful, colorful things - and was French (another attraction of Miss Jean Louis). As we all know, the Esther William swimsuit collection continues to be the classic design for swim attire across the world. An early dream of MJL was to showcase these swimsuits, so Miss Jean Louis arranged for a group of women in their prime to model these suits. Alas, they only wanted to show off their interpretive dance skillsThis shared interest of things exotic and different, drew her to be the caretaker of Misha Collins, based on their similar interest in all things beautiful and caring. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

And it is over

The last two Xerxes performances were uneventful. Which is I guess what we all want. No split pants, no missed cues (on anyone’s part), the audience applauded, make-up stayed on and in place, no one twisted an ankle or broke a leg, snacks were comfortably eaten, jackets had buttons, no backs were wretched out of place, vests were laced, wigs stayed in place, voices were in excellent shape – it was a smooth and happy time. During the thunderstorms Friday night, Susan came out of her dressing room wearing her Act II costume and her reader glasses and did a Ben Franklin impression where she was looking for lightening with a kite. Reminding me why she is so funny, and has such a creative, infectious look at life as we live it.

Susan’s boyfriend was here, so there was less time on the iPhone since he was (happily for her) in H-town. Her brother and very funny sister-in-law were also here, which is always nice. When you have dressed the same person for years, you get to know many of their family members, as well as managers, and longtime friends. Betty (Susan’s mom) didn’t make it to Houston this year, but I did get updates on her and Leon. I also miss that Libby is no longer perched on a chair in the dressing room, Susan’s delightful poodle that has gone off to doggy heaven.

The costume, wig, props, etc. crates are ready to be packed. After the closing night show, all the dressers participate in “packing out” the show. Most costumes get dry-cleaned, shoes get restored to stock, socks, spanx (or other hosiery), binding, cravats, suspenders, and assorted other accessories go back into Houston Grand Opera inventory. After cleaning, they either go to be stored (if HGO owns the show) or to be returned to where it was rented from, or if a co-production, it may go to whoever gets it next, or who built it originally and will be keeping it warehoused. A variety of options can happen with the costumes. Houston Grand Opera has a long history of new productions, or co-productions with other companies, with the original costumes being built (made) in Houston. HGO has really great technical shops where costumes, wigs, props and other stage paraphernalia is artistically created.

I assume Susan and the boyfriend made their early morning flight. While I am not jealous of the difficult life of being on the road most of the year, I know she has some time at her home in Santa Fe coming up, and I am very jealous of that. Susan will be back next season, so this blog about her may have a repeat performance a year from now.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sunday Matinee – May 2, 2010.
Saturday Evening – May 8, 2010.


Sunday Matinee was for the most part, uneventful. Susan sounded good, she felt good, she remembered what she was doing, she had proper hydration, life was good.

Saturday, not so much. The demands made on an artist are great; there are social obligations that sometimes bleed over into opera donor schmoozing and fundraising events, which sometimes require more talking than an ailing singer between performances might be comfortable with. Susan is good at these events, and as you would expect is very popular. Because she has contact with alot of people, I am comfortable telling her to use hand disinfectant after she touches people and things backstage, or to stop seeing visitors (and do unnecessary talking) before the show - things she doesn't need a reminder about, but I do it anyway. My controlling nature often kicks in after the show because singers need time to get out of costume, and dressed, which may mean me guarding the door.

So back to Saturday. Not sure if this falls into TMI or FYI, but it is a question I have gotten elsewhere, so here goes. After drinking all that water, and wearing all those costume pieces, what happens when they need to pee? The multi-talented Susan was very successful in that area on Saturday. We were all so proud of her – Mother Nature called during the Act III quick-change. Susan came into the dressing room for the change and said “I really need to pee” to which I responded “go ahead, we’ll make the change in time” so she did, coming out of the bathroom very proud that the measures put in place worked. So you ask, what were they? First of all, the shirt she wears has a snap crotch (pictured right as April is about to wash it), so she doesn’t have to worry about it coming untucked. More importantly, she wears pantyhose, specifically Spanx, which has an “open gusset” option. The Spanx are tucked under the “make her a boy" binding that I talked about earlier. Quite a few singers wear Spanx, it is comfortable hose/general body wear. Now there has been some discussion online about what this opening is truly for, and whether women really use it for its intended purpose. I can tell you that Spanx keeps things tight and in place, which makes taking them off, especially when you have been sweating, or your hose is tucked under costume pieces, a less than pleasurable experience. Only worse than peeling them off, is putting them back on. Think wet bathing suit, but covering more skin. Perhaps this image is too much information, but Susan was rather successful at using the hole for its intended purpose, and thus, making the costume change in time, and not having to sing with a distracting bladder. Not to forget, it is not healthy to hold it.

So now you know. Too Much Information? Or wow, I always wondered about that and think I am glad to know.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Opening Night. April 30, 2010

Susan didn’t feel well. If you were in the opening night audience, you heard HGO General Director Anthony Freud reference Susan Graham’s fear she might be under the weather, and to please be understanding. It is sometimes hard for a singer to determine – am I getting sick? do I have an infection? am I just really tired? is this allergies wearing me down? What? Susan went through that the last few days, feeling under the weather. She did what most singers at HGO do if you don’t feel well, you make a trip to Dr. Richard Stasney to hopefully verify what is going on, and see if there is anything serious (he is also a supporter of CrimeStoppers of Houston, I ran into him at their annual luncheon). If you are Susan Graham, you come in the dressing room that night and show Larissa (who thought it was really cool) and Dotti (who looked away) pictures of your vocal cords showing that there is nothing major going on.

Well, the curtain went up, and out she went, and she had not a worry in the world. Precautions were taken of course. Dr. Stasney stopped by backstage before the performance to check in with her, we had energy/electrolytes drinks ready, as well as other comfort items - but she gave everyone an “all clear” and off she went to a stunning performance.

I can’t say opening night went completely smooth backstage. A zipper on the leg of her Act I pants split (fixed on the spot), and a button came off her Act III vest. A quick sewing job while the vest was still on fixed that. For the pants, we were afraid of the zipper splitting again, so we zipped it closed, and used the buttons to take the pants off. A picture of the pant’s buttons was on my last blog posting. The zipper held for the quick change.

She also had beautiful flowers waiting in her dressing room from her family, longtime friend Jackson Hicks, and a fan. Not to slight him, her boyfriend did send her flowers, but to home, so no picture. I realized my picture has the tea pot and makeup in the picture. Oh well.

At the end of the show, she was tired – but happy. It was a terrific show.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Final Dress Rehearsal.

Susan’s energy is in the upper levels, and when I walked in her dressing room she was stretching out, doing high kicks. This is a common occurrence, as she warms up her body as well as her voice before a performance. During this rehearsal, I discovered that she was backstage, out of my sight, and doing high kicks in costume. She was SOOOOO busted. She knows if she tears a costume she is in trouble because she can’t just wear something else out on stage. She can be incorrigible, but her energy and humor is infectious, and I wouldn’t win the argument with her over it.

Most singers don’t push themselves too hard for final dress. They generally don’t sing full throttle, and while they aren’t plodding along in the staging, they aren’t exerting the energy of a real performance. Pace.

Final dress rehearsal was fine. In fact, in went very well. Xerxes is a big role, a very demanding role for a singer. It’s been a busy couple of hard weeks of rehearsal, and Susan had months of preparation before that. This is a new role for her. A singer’s voice, and their body can be so fragile, so sensitive to changes. Singers have to pace themselves, saving energy for opening night, and the following performances.

Any guesses what costume piece the picture below is?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Stripping down the hallway.

Quick changes sometimes have a way of being quick not because of how soon the performer’s next entrance is on stage, but to give the performer a little bit of personal time in their dressing room before going back on stage. It may be so they can drink water – singers drink A LOT of water to stay hydrated, go to the restroom (see first item), look at upcoming music, eat a snack (fruit and granola bars are popular), or simply just to sit down for a few minutes. Many principal singers at HGO now have recliners in their dressing rooms, thanks to Susan. I can’t remember the show, but it was very demanding physically, Susan was rolling around on stage, sliding, bumping and bruising. Trying to make her more comfortable for an aching body, she was offered a recliner for her dressing room. Word passed among divas that you too can have a recliner when you sing with Houston Grand Opera, and the rest is history. Wouldn’t you want to quickly change clothes so you can sit and relax in a recliner? On the left is a picture of Susan from a previous production, taking a break between scenes, in the recliner.

So what does Susan do this show? Wortham Center’s Brown Theatre has a backstage hallway where principal singer’s dressing rooms are located. Susan has one costume change, and it is in Act III. She is wearing gloves, a coat, and vest that she strips off as she comes down the hallway to her dressing room. I have the door propped open so she can come right into her room. By the time she reaches me, she is down to pants and shirt, and just barely wearing shoes. We change her pants, shoes, vest, jacket, and add a sword in a very short time. Dotti from wigs and make-up will also be there to make sure she didn’t smudge her make-up, and that her hair is in place. By getting her change done quicker than needed for stage directions, she gets some personal time.

Soon, she is back on stage, I go back to reading a book – a common practice among dressers (Kindle's are gaining popularity), and wait for my next call. Next on the sheet, take her sword at the end of Act III, she doesn’t need it for curtain calls.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Second Dress Rehearsal. 04/23/10 – Only Acts one and two tonight.

It is all about the gloves.
Susan Graham’s only costume change is in Act Three, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to do. There are the gloves, and everything is about the gloves. The first night of rehearsal, my paperwork said that Susan has a pair of gloves that are pre-set on the prop table stage right. I needed to ask her if they should be buttoned or unbuttoned, does she put them on while onstage, does she “do something” while putting them on, etc. Well, she was getting her wig fluffed around by Dottie, department head of wigs, and I forgot to ask. Her dressing room is stage left, and I was stage right leaving the gloves when I remembered I didn’t ask her. I could have called her on my cell phone – I would then be kind of like the people you see at the grocery store who were told to buy spaghetti, and they don’t know if it is spinach, gluten free, whole wheat, or what they are supposed to buy. A quick informational call, but I also know she might be on her iPhone. When you are a singer on the road for weeks or months at a time, you grab the few minutes you have to check in. It might be a call to mom and Leon, her boyfriend, or a variety of friends she stays in touch with long distance. Depending on who she is calling, or is calling her, I watch for a signal to give her privacy. I also try to do this in person when privacy is needed with fellow cast-members, directors, conductors, HGO staff, and other visitors. But sometimes, you just can’t – you are on a deadline getting them in costume so they won’t be late going on stage, so you have to think of something else in your head so you don’t listen to the conversation while working around those in the room. More often than not, the singer is moving while talking, and you are scooting around the room lacing and tying – and if you are lucky, you become invisible and nobody notices your show preparations.

Back to this show. While it shouldn’t seem surprising that an article of clothing might play a role in a character’s life on stage, in Xerxes, in seems like all the dressers are “tracking” gloves, for all characters. Tracking is a term where you are following a specific prop, costume piece, or other often used item throughout a production. In Xerxes, singers are putting on gloves, they are taking them off, people are handing each other gloves, they are bringing them on stage – then hand them off to someone, they put them on tables, chairs, and anywhere else you can leave them. And dressers need to know where these gloves are going, and how they are being used. In some cases, they are left one place at the end of a scene, but are worn by a character in the next scene, so they need to be “tracked” by a dresser who has them ready for use again, in a different setting. The stage management and wardrobe department at HGO do an incredible job creating run sheets (think really detailed schedules), that tell you where costume pieces are, where they need to be, who is wearing them, when they wear them, and often where they end up after they are worn. The same thing is done for wigs and make-up, since all of these must be coordinated as well. For Xerxes, we have tracking sheets specifically for gloves.

Here is a picture of Susan mid-glove change. And no, she did not start moon-walking, although she does wear pants, vest and a jacket that Michael Jackson would have swooned over.
I wrote this (with Susan Graham's support) for Houston Grand Opera because they responded positively to my offer to write about being a dresser for their production to stage blog. For whatever reason they are not using it, so I will revive this old blog of mine, and start posting what I wrote. Here goes - we are starting with the first night of rehearsal.

Various back stage trades bring an opera to life. One of those is what is called a dresser. At Houston Grand Opera, dressers are members of IATSE Theatrical Wardrobe Union #896. These are the people who get the performers into their costumes while throwing clothes everywhere when a singer runs off stage in one costume and hops back on 45 seconds later in an entirely different costume. And all of this is done in tandem with the wig and make-up team who have their changes at the same time, in the same place, on the same person. As part of Houston Grand Opera’s blog giving patrons a view into backstage operations, Susan Graham’s dresser, Larissa, will talk about its current production of Xerxes, and what it is like to be dressing this outstanding singer.

Torturing the Mezzo.
I am very fortunate to be dressing Susan Graham. Yeah, yeah, I get to hear her sing, and I have the pleasure of seeing her on stage every night, but it is more than that. Her attention to detail flows from onstage to backstage. I have dressed her (this is my 20th season as a dresser with HGO), wearing armor in Ariodante (with a clunky quick change), ball gowns in The Merry Widow (with LOTS of corset lacing), glorious robes in Coronation of Poppea, and assorted other costumes. What people don’t know is she is routinely tortured to create the right look. Susan realizes the fine details of a character’s look are sometimes only created by binding her body in corsets or brassieres, yet amazingly, she is still able to sing. In the majority of these roles, including Xerxes, my first task is binding “the girls.” The female body parts that needs to be, uh, suppressed flat to give her that boyish look. Houston Grand Opera has an incredible costume shop, with extremely talented stitchers who make every costume part you could image. This binding that mezzos have the pleasure of wearing are custom made in the HGO shop to make them as comfortable as possible. They stretch, they Velcro, they wrap, they pull, and they work. Yes, this is torturing the mezzo, but it is something a singer coordinates with wardrobe and their dresser to have the basic core of their character’s costume. Virtually all mezzos sing pants roles, and they have to deal with, and embrace this need in a weird way - so I thought it was a good place to start out there in the public domain.

Susan doesn’t have any major quick changes in this opera, but there are costume pieces to “track” – something I will talk about next time.