As a young girl in Owensboro, Hannah Dowdy dreamed of being a stage actress in a big city. She said she was always into musical theater, performing with Theater Workshop of Owensboro, Missoula Children’s Theater, and school productions at Daviess County High School.
But the defining moment of her life happened when she saw her first Broadway play during a school trip to New York City.
“My mom wanted to go see Wicked,” Dowdy explained. “Which was new back then, so I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Anything on Broadway.’ But I was completely moved by it. That show inspired me so much. I knew right then at 16 years old this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
Fast forward to today, and Dowdy is now working on that very Broadway production of Wicked as a full-time dresser for Glinda, one of the two lead characters. Wicked tells the story of the witches made popular in the Wizard of Oz, Elphaba (the wicked witch of the west) and Glinda (the good witch.) The show premiered on Broadway in 2003 and is still wildly popular.
She is the head dresser for Glinda but was actually called upon to dress Elphaba too the night of this interview for Owensboro Times.
“As a full-time dresser, you’re basically their person for the night,” Dowdy said. “It’s a cross between wardrobe and personal assistant. You get whatever they need; water, aspirin, ace bandage, ice for a sore knee, anything to help them perform their best.”
OBKY to NYC
Dowdy moved to New York City shortly after finishing an internship in Memphis in 2010. Like so many others trying to “make it” on Broadway, she started out working three part-time jobs and focused on making connections with anyone and everyone she could. One of those connections was a friend who worked at the Metropolitan Opera.
“My friend called and said they needed help dressing at the Met and asked if I would be interested,” Dowdy said. “I didn’t have any experience, but I figured I could figure it out. They say some dressers are good with wardrobe. Some are good with people. It turns out I’m good with both, but I think I’m even better at ‘fake it till you make it’, which is totally what I did.”
That was back in 2015. Some productions at the Met have up to 200 people on stage throughout a performance. With that size cast, dressers are in high demand because they help the production run smoothly. Dowdy ended up being a “swing dresser,” meaning she was a sub for full-time dressers when they took a night off work. That’s how she got to dress for Phantom of the Opera, for example.
A swing dresser usually has three nights to learn the show, make notes, and learn the run sheet with the costume changes.
“You shadow the full-time dresser one night,” she said. “Then the full-time dresser follows you the next night. And then you’re on your own. Then, whenever they call you to sub, you execute.”
Eventually, those experiences resulted in Dowdy joining the dresser’s union, which lead to more opportunities.
Right Time, Right Place
Her work with Wicked began with dressing a female ensemble, so she helped dress several characters. After a while, she was assigned to Madame Morrible, which is one of the main antagonists. Then about four years ago, the full-time dresser for the ensemble retired and Dowdy was offered her position.
“I guess they liked me,” Dowdy said with a laugh. “But I’ve found that I’m not good at typical 9-5 jobs anyway. Live theater is exciting. It keeps me on my toes.”
So for the last four years, a typical day at work for Hannah actually starts about 6:30 p.m., when the night crew comes in to get all the costumes in place and prepare the stage and backstage areas. The wardrobe crew comes in during the day to make any necessary repairs to the costumes to keep them looking sharp, fresh, and new.
“The first thing I do is make sure all the costumes are ready to go and where they need to be and see if any costumes need ironing or steaming,” she said. The actors arrive about 30 minutes before showtime to prepare and get dressed. “I give her towel and tea service in the dressing room to keep her comfortable and relaxed. Then the rest of the night I basically chase Glinda around like crazy.”
What she means is she has to know when and where Glinda comes off the stage after each scene so she can be ready and waiting with the next costume. Some of the changes happen very quickly. One, in particular, is a full-costume change in 12 seconds.
“That may not sound like a lot of time, but it actually is more than enough because the changes are so rehearsed and choreographed almost like a dance,” Dowdy said. “It’s plenty of time for us to get the costumes switched out, take a deep breath, and for her to get a drink of water while I look things over and make sure it’s all correct before she runs back out on stage.”
So while Dowdy may not be the one in the spotlight singing solos on stage, she’s very much a part of the show.
“Dressing is not exactly how I imagined my career, but for this season, it’s a lot of fun. I get to be in the industry I love,” she said. “It’s nice to have this sort of come full-circle for me with Wicked. It’s such a great show. It’s been running for 16 years and is still relevant today. It’s so well written and the music is amazing. I get to experience it every night.”