- Natalie Wisdom
Jessica Dermody, Broadway Wardrobe Supervisor, Broadway Producer.
Founder of @Broadway Undressed and @Blank Page Social
[Interview Date: April 9, 2021]
Hamilton, Frozen, The Producers, and more.
What were the weeks leading up to March 12, 2020 like for you, at Frozen?
We went back into tech in January and February. We had replacements come in, and we made changes to the show. The two months leading up to March 12th were insane. We were rehearsing the show during the day and running our old show during the night, so we were working 14 to 16-hour days for about two months. There were photo shoots and press, and a lot of morning shows. It was really crazy.
Everyone was very tired, and it was winter so people were sick. We did have people that were sick, in the building, as early as January. But we all just thought it was the flu, because “the show must go on.” That’s our mentality. That was all going on around us. And as the talking about what was happening globally started to peek in, we kind of kept going; which is what you do in the theatre. It was doing this job, knowing that we were releasing this new version of the show. It was kind of ‘business as usual’ in the crazy that was the normal of that time.
And then, on the 12th, we were all at the theater. I think it was a Thursday; we were going to have a full company rehearsal. And we had waited to do maintenance on the Sven puppet, and they called and asked if they should still come in. And we heard Moulin Rouge canceled their show…
We were all onstage, which was crazy. Just waiting around at rehearsal and, ironically, in hindsight, we (now) know there were people who had Covid. When they finally made the call, there was no real preparation. We’re closing up for 30 days and what people don’t think about is that 90 percent of the stuff in a Broadway show is all in the basement of a 100-year-old Broadway theater. So, we were grabbing the trash bags from underneath the trash cans to cut them open, to put them over the top of stuff, because we only had about two hours!
Did you initially anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
Initially, I did not think it would be this long. I definitely thought it was going to be more than the 30 days they had allotted. I was surprised people were shocked. About three weeks in, I was like, “This is a long haul. We are in this for the long haul.” Did I think it would be more than a year? Possibly two years? No.
As a Wardrobe Supervisor, what were the biggest challenges for you when you saw things were shutting down? Were there any specific challenges relating to but not limited to things like load-out, crew morale, etc.?
On Broadway, we’re on a specific cleaning schedule of costumes, and costumes are very expensive. And we feel responsible for making sure those costumes stay serviceable and functionable. When we closed down, it was the midpoint of the week when the costumes are the dirtiest. They go out to cleaning that night, so part of it was knowing that we were leaving everything as is. However, we made the best of the situation within two hours, thinking we would be able to come back in a couple weeks. As it started to go on, it was like, “Ok everything is hanging in its dirtiest state. What’s happening in that building?” And whatever provisions we’re going to have to go back to those theaters under--What will we be asked to do at Frozen? it was unique, because we ended up being asked to load out.
I have been a part of many load-outs, but we got the news we were closing in May. And then, somewhere in the middle of June, it was like, “Can we load out two days from now?” We were doing everything piece-meal, because stores weren’t open. We were the first to go back to work of everyone. We went in before the Stage Hand Crew was loading out the theatre. We did a two-part load-out where we loaded out of the St. James and put it in the New Amsterdam Theater to organize it there, and send it to the UK. People weren’t physically in New York, and some people didn’t feel safe to come to work. There were guidelines in place, but did we know what we were doing at that time? No. Everything we’ve done through the pandemic has been a gamble. It’s just a best guess as to what you can do to keep yourself safe.
What precautions have you discussed or heard being discussed in regards to innovative ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances?
I think a lot of it is: Wear your masks; wear whatever PPE stuff is available. We found through working TV and Film- finding that being under theatre lights with a face shield on, is not a thing. You can’t see. And then, for dressers, it’s very difficult. The job is- you’re a ninja that works in the dark. You know what it is to come offstage; you’re singing offstage vocals, and everyone is sweating or spitting. It’s part of the job; it’s normal to us. But it’s also the most dangerous situation to be in. Doing a quick-change wearing gloves? Not a thing. Can’t have a bite light…
The last day we were filming a TV show I was working on; we were filming this dance sequence in a theater, (and) they wanted us to do a 12-second quick change and didn’t want us to be visible. So, they didn’t want us to use any lights, which is not a thing. Up until that point, it was like “Use those little lights you use.” But wait-now I’ve been asked to take off both my mask and shield at 3:00 in the morning? And I was like, “This is what we’re talking about.” People just hit a wall and feel like, “we just gotta get it done.” And things like that can’t happen when we get back to live performances. We have a little bit better of a shot now that there’s a vaccine. I’m a certified Covid Officer now as well. And that training has to be required for those of us in charge of those departments. You set the example because you’re that person. It’s about setting a good example for others.
What have you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
I have done a lot of things. I do Wardrobe Supervision, but I’m also a Broadway Producer, and I run a Not-For-Profit Theatre Company, so I direct and write. I’ve worked with Charlie Sutton for years, but when the pandemic first started, and in the first two weeks, I did what everyone else was doing: “Oh this is a vacation. Oh wait… It’s not a vacation.” And we started to feel the weight and the significance of everything in a way that people who didn’t live here were not experiencing.
I’m an avid journaler. I’ve been journaling for 30 years. And I woke up one morning-I hadn’t journaled in a really long time. And I had this crazy idea to hold myself accountable to do a live-journaling thing. People were freaked out, especially feeling the lack of community. It’s very different than having office jobs. We’re all family. So, I started this thing called “Blank Page Social.” We just finished 365 days of journaling! And it’s a ten-minute, virtual live journaling session. Every morning at 10 AM.
When we first started, it was at 10 am and midnight. It was anywhere between 30 and 100 people showing up to lives, and then, it kind of circulated, and thousands more people showed up and were doing it. And that’s kind of been the self-care, mental health aspect of what it’s been. There’s a beautiful community over there. A lot of people in the industry, since it’s been so tough for us. Ten minutes of dedicated self-care. There’s a prompt, but you can draw or journal; whatever you feel. It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done during this time
What is ‘Broadway Undressed’?
I work with a couple writers, and early on in the pandemic, we were like, “What do we do? Do we do a play reading on Zoom?” And a friend of mine said Airbnb had this platform called Airbnb experiences, and they were looking for shows for their platform. So, I went to listen to what they were pitching, and then I was like, “Nobody wants a Zoom show- there are ten million people reading plays, and it’s just not the right format for it. But I pitched them this idea for this virtual backstage tour. It’s part backstage tour, part masterclass, and part meet-and-greet/live interactive Q & A. It’s the kind of thing that teaches people what it’s like to build a Broadway show through the lens of costuming. But we’ve branched out to other areas. We just presented to Google last week! So, it’s been amazing, because we meet all types of people from all over the world.
The interesting thing is, I think as theatre people, we don’t realize how lacking theatre education actually is because we’re entrenched in it. We are educators ourselves. I’ve been teaching at different universities for years, and that’s basically what this is in an entertaining and accessible way. To have a virtual event that doesn’t feel like a lecture, and people don’t know what to expect. And they’re like, “I feel like I made new friends, and I will never complain about the cost of a theatre ticket again.” They don’t always know how many people they are supporting.
Full circle – this comes into the conversations that are being had right now, because of the lack of Broadway, specifically. Because of National Tours and Broadway (shutting down); that revenue is not coming in. It has taken a toll, and I think people are realizing how important it is to the infrastructure.
The biggest thing about Broadway Undressed is that, yes, it’s fun to do, but there is often a negative narrative around working backstage. It starts very young when you’re in middle school or high school. And if you don’t get cast in the school play, you have to work backstage. And it’s in the TV shows and our entertainment: “Here’s the crazy stage manager…” These are real jobs and real career paths, and I think we have done such a disservice by forwarding this negative narrative that we don’t have qualified, trained people to do these jobs.
The training programs for these jobs are just starting to exist for things like technical wardrobe work. Everything has been centered around the designers. And when you look at PR for Broadway shows, they’re not talking to the Head Carpenter or the dressers; they are talking to the designers. But what a designer does versus what the run-crew does is drastically different. And the skill sets are so specific, because you are in charge of the caretaking for all the people in the building, and I think it’s time to turn the lens on that. We’re realizing we’re some of the greatest theatre historians that exist because we are there, but also, we are the most skilled people to do these jobs.
It’s interesting, because there are people that go into professional theatre and people who go into academic theatre, and there needs to be more of a merger there. I hope this can shine a light on what people are seeing when they come to the theatre.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
I think the hardest thing- especially in what I do… I’m a Cancer. I’m very motherly when people work on shows with me. They’re like, “You’re not a normal Wardrobe Supervisor.” People don’t realize that the show is all-encompassing. There’s not a lot of understanding or respect for what the workspace is. It’s the lack of having our lifestyle. Every show becomes our family unit, so when a show closes or when a pandemic comes along, I’ve been on Broadway for almost 20 years, and this is one of the first times I didn’t spend the holidays in the theater. And that’s been a tough realization. And you’re like, “Ok if we’re not to return for some reason…” It makes you reevaluate what life is, because we will be the one demographic of people who will be hit the hardest by this, in the long haul, which is a hard place to be.
What do you miss the most about theatre/your job/the arts?
There is a certain feeling of when you’re in an empty theater before the audience comes in. In a big theater, there is a coldness in the air and a certain smell. It’s just this feeling. You’re there with the ghosts or whatever it is, and that is my favorite thing about being in the theater; period. I write a lot, so sometimes I’ll just go into the balcony and write. There’s something about that experience of being in the theater that feels like home to me. It’s not so much the craziness during the show; it’s the quiet before the storm.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
It’s the hardest question, because during this pause, having the time to stop and look back, I’ve been really blessed to have my career- which has been insane, because it wasn’t planned! I don’t really sew! I love how shows go together, and that’s my whole thing. So, to stop and think about it…
But one of the most incredible things that happened early on in my career on Broadway was I got to do this crazy quick change with Mel Brooks when he just randomly decided he wanted to go into The Producers on the night Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane went back into the show. He wanted to surprise them. But the actor he was going to go in for was on the same side of the stage as Matthew and Nathan; already in the costume! So, we had to wait for Matthew and Nathan to go onstage, and then, we had to undress that actor, put Mel Brooks into the costume and then get him onstage!
I was also the original Assistant Wardrobe Supervisor on Hamilton, and being there was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When you’re building a show, you don’t always know it will have any impact. At Hamilton, you could feel you were moving forward this massive agenda that was going to change Musical Theatre History, and that was a cool thing to be a part of.
What advice do you have for young Broadway/Stage Crew hopefuls during this time?
I think that the best part about what’s happening is that everyone is accessible in a way they have not been accessible before. Do not be afraid to reach out to people. The people who are most successful in this industry are the people who reach out. It’s scary to send an email to someone you don’t know. What’s the worst that will happen? They won’t respond. Or they will respond, and you can start a conversation. That’s how you meet your mentors. There is no school or experience that is going to match that. Anytime you can connect with a theatre professional, do it. As far as getting your hands dirty, that’s what the job is. You can go to school and train in this stuff, but at the end of the day, you’re really learning, because you’re building a set for your school show; or you have a budget of $50 for your middle school show. You don’t learn the most when you’re doing the big budget Broadway show. When you do that, you are leaning on these experiences. Just do things, and if things are not happening around you; make things happen around you.
Favorite Broadway Musical: So many. I love Chicago. Always been a Fosse person.
Favorite Broadway Play: Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Play that I’ve worked on: Peter and the Starcatcher. It was the most magical thing to work on.
Favorite Movie Musical: West Side Story
Movie you think should be a musical: It’s happening! Death Becomes Her!
Favorite Theatre Ritual or Tradition: The Legacy Robe on Opening night!
Favorite NYC Restaurant: Golden Unicorn down in Chinatown. It’s amazing!
Favorite Theatre Superstition: I’m a big believer that there should be no peacock feathers on the stage. The peacock feather symbolizes the evil eye, and some of the older divas in the business will not allow a peacock feather in the theater; even a print on the dress!
Favorite Wardrobe Gadget: The Snagnabbit! When a sweater gets a pull on the outside of the sweater, it’s a needle that has a sandpaper grit at the end, and I can pull the snag to the other side.
Best Personal Superhero Crew Skill: I’m known as the Zipper Queen of Broadway. My long-time assistant is the Stain Remover Queen. But if there is a problem with the zipper, I usually can fix it!