Backstage with Theatrical Dresser Kari Kramer | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Backstage with Theatrical Dresser Kari Kramer

“Often I meet people while they’re in their underwear.”

Backstage with Theatrical Dresser Kari Kramer
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Theatrical dresser Kari Kramer poses for a portrait inside Public Theater.

Name: Kari Kramer, Spring Hill
Title: Theatrical Dresser
Where? Freelance at large houses: Benedum, Byham, Heinz Hall

What do you do? Before-inventory, setting costumes in place, mending, ironing, steaming. Make sure everyone has their bow ties on straight, the right earrings, tie them into a corset. During the show, changes in the dressing room and the wings.

What are those like? The really quick ones are like when a race car pulls into a pit stop, everybody jumps in to do their part — vroom! — except this is choreographed and silent. Then the actor flies back onstage after ten seconds in the dark. Sometimes there are four or five people working to change one person. Those are the fun ones. It’s an adrenaline rush.

Are garments the only variable? Definitely not. Actors are human so they’re all different, and dressing them will be different. There’s a wide variety of demeanors – some people are very calm and some are more hyped up, so you have to consider the person as well as the garments.

Do you have much of a relationship beforehand? Often I meet people while they’re in their underwear.

Where did you get your start? Sewing in costume shops. A dresser was needed at City Theatre. I applied and learned on the job. Then wardrobe supervisor at the Pittsburgh Public Theater for eight years.

What is your background? School for fashion merchandising. I had sewing classes that were very basic. I learned so much in costume shops, side by side with women sewing longer than I had been alive. I’d be struggling with something and someone would lean over and say, “Oh honey, do it like this!”

Is this a woman-dominated field? Definitely. We have a union that locally has around 35 people; only three are men. It’s good that we have those three for when a touring show specifically requests a male dresser.

Does that happen often? No.

Why is it so female heavy? The lore is that in the old days, the dressers were the wives of the stagehands, helping out.

Tools of your trade? Head-to-toe black to blend in. I have an apron that I call my desk drawer, with a little sewing kit with pre-threaded needles, scissors, seam ripper, nail clippers, nail files, Tums or ginger candies in case an actor has an upset stomach, bite lights (flashlights you hold in your mouth), Topstick (double-sided toupee tape), tons of safety pins.

Backstage with Theatrical Dresser Kari Kramer
Theatrical dresser Kari Kramer poses for a portrait inside Public Theater.
CP photo: Jared Wickerham

What are you proud of? For The Odd Couple for Pittsburgh Public Theater, there was a change 32 seconds long for everything — socks, shoes, pants, vest, tie, shirt. Every night we did it. One night, [an actor] re-entered to applause, and I was backstage in the wings taking a bow and celebrating.

Is there more to the job than changing clothes? For sure. Real life problems don’t stop just because there’s a show. I’ve been with actors crying just minutes before they had to go onstage. In that moment, I feel like it’s the unwritten part of my job to help them through a moment of crisis when there’s no time for a crisis. I care very much about the show being able to go on but I also care about people as humans. It’s a very personal position to be in, and I always feel honored and humbled by the trust that comes with those moments.

What’s coming up next? A break!

What’s your favorite part? You’re a part of the energy of the show. Everybody getting ready, live performance energy. You can feel the anticipation of the audience. It’s in the air and you’re all in it together.

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