Q&A with dresser/PA Jenni Carvell

230390_5650332211_794_nWhat is a dresser?

A dresser is given to the performers to help them during the show to get in and out of costumes. Depending on the size of show, wardrobe teams can vary. On the bodyguard we have 7 dressers, plus a head of department, a deputy and an assistant. The leading Lady/Man will normally get there own dresser but other dressers can look after between 2 to 10 cast members.

How did you get into the job?

I was resting (which is what performers call out of work) and someone who had been my wardrobe mistress on a show I was in, put my name forward to her friend who was looking for a swing dresser. ( this is someone who learns all the plots then covers everyone’s holiday or sick days.)  I went for my interview and got the job. Then it just developed from there.

Do you train to be a dresser for instance? 

I didn’t train to be a dresser, but having been a dancer for many years in shows myself I knew what the artist needed.  looking after people comes naturally to me and i enjoy trying to be one step ahead and knowing what they need before they do!!!

Once I started dressing I soon realised looking after people one on one was where I was at my best. So this is now what I do. Over the years I’ve looked after probably over 25 leading ladies / celebrities, all of which I have a good relationship with and am still in contact with most of them.

Describe a regular day

Regular day on the bodyguard is, arrive an hour and a quarter before show starts. Collect any washing from previous show and take down to Beverley Knights’s dressing room.  (this is who I am currently looking after as she has just taken over the role from Heather Headley.)

This is where I check the room. Tidy up if needed and wash any glasses from guests used from the night before. Normally I boil the kettle so it’s ready for when she comes up from warm up.  Now I will collect all costumes and start my preset. The part they play “Rachel Marron ” has 21 costume changes so this gives you an  idea of how many costumes I have to preset. All her changes are fairly quick so we have to do all changes at the side of the stage or in the quick change areas set on stage level.

Once my preset is complete I go up to my department and wait for the half to be called which for our show is at 6.55. The show starts at 7.30 but the calls are always 5 min early so that we go up on time !!!

Once it’s called I go back to Beverley’s room and once her wig is on I help her  into costume. While her wig is going on however,  I take any fan mail ready and take to company manager for posting.

At beginners call on goes my dressers pouch (full of remedies to help them through the show) and down we go to the stage for the show to start. Inside the pouch varies on who I look after but generally inside is: honey, glycerin, water, throat sweets, plasters, painkillers, tissues, hand sanitizer, moisturiser, mints, nail file, scissors, safety pins and needle and cotton for last minute repairs.

It’s a busy show for her and I so we don’t stop really till 10 pm when the show ends. Then I help out if her last costume. Give her some hot herbal tea to calm her throat after all that singing.

Then if she has guests in I will wait for them to arrive,then I take any laundry or repairs , up to wardrobe.

Then I get to go home. Sometimes via the pub !!!!

Can things go wrong? What is the worst thing that has happened to you on a show?

Yes things can go wrong. Luckily for me nothing too horrendous has happened (touch wood) But zips have broken in a quick change and if its that’s quick you just have to send them on and say ” don’t turn round ” and just hope for the best.

On another show I did “Chicago” the two leading ladies jackets got mixed up, which ended up with much laughter while they performed in jackets totally the wrong size for each of them… luckily for me they too found this funny.. it could have gone another way should they not have found it funny too tough..

What’s the shortest amount of time you have to change a costume on the bodyguard and what exactly is it?

My quickest change on this show is 20 seconds!!! We have to get her out of a jacket, top, leggings , boots and get her into a massive feather dress and jewellery . She also gets a wig change to. I won’t tell you exactly what happens or how we do it as it would spoil the magic. But there are 3 of us on the change. It’s like a pit stop on a formula one race. The performer just stands there and we get to work!!!

Do you go above and beyond the call of ‘dresser’ duty? And how?

You don’t have to go above and beyond but as a principle dresser I tend too. You are their  friend/ confident  so once you get to know them you know what they like and I tend to try and have everything as they like it so they don’t have to worry about anything but their own performance. I take this to more of a PA role than dresser…

Is it a lonely job or are you part of the company?

You are part of a company, I’m very lucky and have never felt out of place in a job and many a time my boss or the ladies i look after want to take me with them. I take much pride in this.

I imagine dressing someone can be a close, personal relationship, how so?

Dressing one on one means you can create a very special bond.. you see and hear everything!!!! That said this why we are employed, what i see or hear is private and stays private.. If it didn’t my reputation would go down and i wouldn’t get employed.

Also if the role is very demanding often they need you to help them along the way.. i.e. confidence and emotional strength

But also if they have had a bad day, its up to you to help them turn it around…. we are what they need…. if thats a councillor or a friend or to just be invisible this is the task we undertake for every show…..

Can having the background as a dresser lead to other jobs? PA? Costume designer? 

I have worked as a dresser for over 7 years now and along the way many have said I should become a PA… the roles we play are very similar, although  for me I would be a better PA for someone in Film or Theatre industry as this is the field I know better. I was recently a PA to an american actor while he was over here working, this was on a part time basis and fitted in perfectly with my theatre job.

As for a costume designer? If you are creative and good with a needle (which I am not) then if you network well, there is always somewhere else you could go.

What are the perks and what is the best thing that has happened on the job?

Perks of the job…. umm its not great pay but the perks for me are knowing they miss you when you are on holiday!!!! (this means I’ve done my job well and become invaluable to them )

Getting to go places with them if they need you when promoting the show.

But I’ve been very lucky and have looked after some wonderful people who have showered me with much generosity.

To date my best perks have been becoming great friends with a few, a pair of Prada Shoes, some lovely jewellery and a holiday  ..

But the best perk for me is knowing I was appreciated.

You’ve worked in the west end a long time what are your favourite restaurants and bars?

Ooh tricky… love Two Brydges, Soho House, Adam street, The Port House, Sophies and PJ’s for places to go for drinks and food after the show.

Restaurants i love are Hawksmoor, Gaucho, The Shard, Kettner’s but not living in London my some of my favourite restaurants are closer to home in Leigh on Sea in Essex.

Not forgetting a good afternoon tea, my favourite still being The Ritz !!!!

What is your favourite cupcake?

Oh this is by far the trickiest question…. I think i will have to go with a chocolate cup cake…..or lemon ummm getting hungry just thinking about it.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Best advice I’ve ever been given is Be yourself and Listen to what people want…. each new person I look after brings something new to me…. and from that I hope I learn and grow as a person and as a Dresser/ Pa


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