Emily Stern holds a B.F.A. in Technical Theater from Longwood University. She is a theater professional working in and around Washington, D.C. She has skillfully executed her wardrobe positions with renowned companies such as the Signature Theater, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Wolf Trap Opera Company, and even Cirque du Soleil. In this exclusive interview, Emily shared fascinating insights on what can happen behind the scenes of a busy production.
Please tell me what your job in wardrobe involves.
What I like to explain to those who are not in the industry is that there are two types of costume people. There’s the costume designer, who as you’re well aware, designs the costumes and figures out what works together. The costume designer’s job is finished once the show opens. On the other side of the spectrum, there are the costume [or wardrobe] people who help run the show and are actually there every night helping actors get into costume and with the quick changes. The wardrobe person’s job starts when the show is opened.
I get all my paperwork and my work responsibilities in a packet. Ideally, it tells me where I go – stage left, stage right, when I help this person, which song, and their tap shoes. In a perfect world, I’m told what to do. [But] some costume designers don’t have the paperwork, or we have to make up our job on the spot.
That first day is called the technical rehearsal. When I come to work, I look at the cast list, figure out if I’m acquainted with the show well, and I put on my apron. It is a crazy and hectic time! Everybody is stressed about it. Not only is it the first time actors go into costume, but it’s the first time lights and sound are together. As long as we keep our heads on our shoulders and figure out who is wearing what, it’s pretty easy.
How did you decide to pursue this as a career?
I started out in college undecided for theater. I knew by the end of first year that I had to do costumes. I did not want to be a costume designer. It’s very difficult work. I believe I am an artist, but not in that way. I find more enjoyment running the shows. One of my first shows in college was Rocky Horror Picture Show and my professor told me that [being a wardrobe person] is actually an option. You don’t have to sew costumes all day or be a costume designer. (laughs) It’s so clichéd but I love being around people and being part of the crew. It was almost like I’m as important as the action onstage. So it was four years of college and working in the costume shop. I know how to sew very well. I don’t enjoy it as much, but I can put a dress together if need be.
There’s only so much you can teach someone about an actor having a panic attack. You have to be there on a show and deal with people. My greatest training was my first professional internship. I was in the Berkshire Theatre Group, where I met my mentor who taught me as much as she could in one summer. I got to run my first two shows and work alongside her. With most jobs, you get the most experience onsite.
Going back to technical rehearsals, what are those like?
Problems happen in those first days of technical rehearsals. That’s when the actors, maybe in a musical, are dancing and their pants rip. I’ve helped people out of pants with totally torn crotches. I’ve had to cut people out of dresses because they had a quick change coming and the zipper broke. Really, it’s about being there and the hospitality of being backstage as a smiling face willing to help out. You are a friend to this actor who has had a long day and maybe doesn’t want to get into that costume. I’m someone they can talk to. It’s like therapy work for the theater. It’s like having a friend backstage to help you out. I’ve worked with actors who have had low blood sugar, so I would be ready backstage with a piece of candy and some water. Other times, I would be backstage with a sweat rag, because the sweat is practically dripping from their faces. It’s hospitality work.
How would your notes for an opera differ from those for a play?
Opera is one of the easiest jobs to do as a dresser because the stage manager is on the intercom constantly and tells us word for word what to do. I’ll be waiting in the dressing room and the manager will say, “Emily Stern, please assist so-and-so stage right.” That is pretty unheard of in theater, [where] you have to figure it out yourself unless it’s on your paperwork. I would say having my A-game on for my theater work is the hardest because nobody is telling you what to do.
Also, a lot of opera singers love to wear corsets under their period costumes. They say that helps them with a solid foundation to push against to find the notes. I’ve found there are a ton of corsets in opera shows. It means I help with lacing those corsets, which might add 10 or 15 minutes to a costume change.
What about working with Cirque du Soleil, which offers shows full of acrobatic stunts?
With Cirque du Soleil, when I worked with them, 85% of those costumes were made of stretch fabric, acrobatic-type materials, and they were sweat resistant. Luckily, my show call, or time to go to work, was six o’clock p.m. I wouldn’t have to do much sewing. The girls who did the morning shifts on those costumes had to know how to sew on stretch fabric. That’s a couple of different techniques on the sewing machine.
I had to adjust with the language barrier. The majority of the performers were from Russia. We had a few from Greece and China. Working with body language – okay, Emily, how can these people respect you as a worker even though you can’t speak their language?
The work [also involved] moving big set pieces that performers had to walk into. Technically, these were costumes. It wasn’t so much zipping up an actor. Cirque du Soleil is such a grand platform of entertainment that I was assisting with things that normally carpenters and stage hands would do. It was a lot of fun, but very different. I learned a lot!
Of the shows you’ve done, do you have a favorite?
My favorite production and the one which sticks out the most is La Cage aux Folles at Signature Theater last year. Even saying the words, I think sequins, boas, and showgirls. I was given the wonderful task of dressing the lead in that show. He played a man who was in drag the whole time. It was full of quick changes, adding his glue-on eyelashes, patting him dry, and giving him water. There were the occasional mishaps and miscues. That was the most stressful show but it was the most rewarding. I was sprinting before intermission to get things ready backstage. I worked with a wonderful man who became one of my good friends and someone I respect in the theater as a professional. It was a great crew. You bond closely with people that you work long hours with. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done and so rewarding!