Owensboro Native Living Broadway Dreams
As a young girl in Owensboro, Hannah Dowdy dreamed of being a stage actress in a big city. Hannah says she was always into musical theater, performing with Theater Workshop of Owensboro, Missoula Children’s Theater, and school productions at Daviess County High.
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,” Hannah explains. “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 2020 and Hannah 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.
Hannah is the head dresser for Glinda, but was also called upon to dress Elphaba one night before the stages on Broadway went dark in response to the Coronavirus.
“As a full-time dresser, you’re basically their person for the night. It’s a cross between wardrobe and personal assistant,” Hannah explains. “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, Hannah 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. I didn’t have any experience, but I thought 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,” Hannah laughed.
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. Hannah 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. 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 Hannah joining the dresser’s union, which led 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 Glinda retired, and Hannah was offered her position.
Goodbye, part-time jobs!
“I guess they liked me,” Hannah said, laughing again. “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, until the COVID-19 shutdown, 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,” Hannah 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 Hannah 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,” Hannah says, “but it actually is more than enough because the changes are so rehearsed and choreographed, almost like a dance. 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 Hannah 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. And 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.”
It’s Broadway tradition that a single “ghostlight” lights the stage overnight; usually a dim bulb on a floor stand. So when Hannah Dowdy walked into the theater to pick up some personal belongings before heading back to Kentucky for a visit, that single glowing bulb was her only greeting. “The company management called and said we could schedule a time to come in if we needed to. It was bizarre to walk into an empty backstage. It was so quiet with no one else around.”
And that was three months after the shutdown, with no end in sight.
It was initially announced on March 12 that all Broadway theaters would go dark to prevent community spread of the Coronavirus. “At first, we were ordered to shut down for a month. And we thought great, a month off. Then it was announced we’d be dark through June. Now there’s no opening date, and it could very well be next year.”
What’s a dresser to do when there are no shows? Bike around the empty town. “I rode through midtown when there were barely any cars. I rode through Times Square when there were only like 30 people walking around. It felt like a ghost town. I rode to the top level of Grand Central Station, which you would never be able to do in normal traffic.”
And she made masks. As you might imagine, many in the dressers union are very handy with a needle and thread, so sewing masks when the call for PPE went out was an impromptu pastime for many of Dowdy’s friends. “Theater people are used to a fast paced life. Going from working 50 hours a week to zero was pretty drastic. So it was good to stay busy doing something constructive that would help other people.”
She also took advantage of the opportunity to come back to Owensboro and be with family. “It is sad to see the theaters go dark and the city shut down. Frozen is not coming back to Broadway. Other shows will probably not return. It’s anyone’s guess right now. So I’m just trying to reframe it to stay hopeful and optimistic. I am fortunate to work for a long-running show and have a job to come back to. So I’m grateful for the free time to be with family, and I’m trying my best to turn it into a positive.”