Making It Happen: The Prom Dresser Mikey Piscitelli Talks Working Backstage on Broadway
Before joining The Prom, Mikey made his Broadway debut as a swing dresser at the historic The Phantom of the Opera. Then he worked on the epic Spider-Man:Turn Off the Dark, Disney's Aladdin on Broadway, and the national tours of Aladdin and Kinky Boots, where he dressed Lola.
BroadwayBox caught up with Mikey to discuss the job of a dresser on Broadway, what to know if you want to work backstage, and how he got his big break.
1. How did becoming a professional dresser on Broadway first appear on your radar? How did you land your big break in the field?
I must admit, I had no idea such a position existed when I was doing theatre as a teen back in Houston, TX. When I was 18, I designed costumes with my mom for the youth theatre I was a part of. So, I knew a “costume designer” was a thing but, since internet was just getting big, no clue how many other positions fell under the category of costumes. I moved to NY to be an actor, but, after losing my father, I found myself leaving that goal and selling merchandise for The Lion King on Broadway. The bartenders at the time had a small theatre company and asked if I would design the costumes. They had no money so I was paid in “future favors”. I was looking for any artistic outlet, so I designed a few shows for them. Fast forward to being recommended for a shop position at Maine’s Summer Rep, Theatre at Monmouth, which then lead to a dressing position at Dicapo Opera here in Manhattan.
That however would really lead me to my big break. My wardrobe supervisor at the opera was also a swing dresser at The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. She called me one day and said, “They are looking for male swing dressers at Phantom, bring your resume over to the Majestic NOW! I told the Supervisor about you and she will meet you today.” I printed out a resume and bolted to the theatre. Julie Ratcliffe, who is still the supervisor there, was in the middle of a Christine put in. (Which is where the actor/actress is put into the show with the cast and all the elements, but they are the only one in costume.) She looked at my resume, asked me a few questions and told me to go file my paperwork with the Local 764 Theatrical Wardrobe Union and I could start earning my days under a union job. I did and she kept to her word. I spent a year at Phantom of the Opera, and learned I think 15 out of 17 tracks? I can’t recall now, though I still have all my notes filed away just in case.
My time at Phantom was so magical, a true jewel of Broadway—they really don’t do shows of this size anymore (at least without using a ton of digital effects or projections). Since I was still so green to wardrobe, this training and having to be ready to do any track at any moment really conditioned my brain to go with the flow and adjust quickly.
2. What is a typical night at The Prom like for you? Can you take us through the touchstones of your typical performance?
I arrive to the theatre 90 minutes before showtime. I will collect my actresses’ laundry and any costume piece doubles I may need. I will go up to their dressing room (they all share one room) and lay out their laundry at their station spots. I will set out their first costume on the back of their chair and then go clean and fill their water bottles. I will then pack any costume pieces that need to be taken down to deck or stairwells for quick changes. For the most part, my girls will come back to their room to do changes, but sometimes time doesn’t allow it and we have to find a random spot backstage to do it quickly. Along with all of my girls’ changes, I assist two of the female ensemble in changes and one with Angie Schworer, who plays....well, Angie. For anyone that has seen the show, this change includes a giant heart bustle that contains two giant pride flags.
After all my presets are done, I will check in and say hello to my girls if I haven’t already. See how their day was etc. In any show I’m in, I always (try my best) to read the room. Sometimes people don’t wanna talk a lot before a matinee, or the room is hyped and music is blasting and we all are silly. I try not to force anything, and I really try not to bring anything I’m carrying into the space. Sometimes it’s hard, but we all try to do this.
I sit outside the girls’ room on the stairs until Christopher Enlow goes in at 15 to pin their wigs on. I will go in with him and sit on their couch and usually just listen. I think it’s kind of a nice way just for everyone to subconsciously see how everyone is etc. Our little group spends most of the next 2 1/2 hours together, so it just kind of greases up the wheels. This is not every case for every show. When I was on Kinky Boots, I was in the Lola room a lot. You have to figure out what works best for the particular actors, set up etc.
Once the show starts, I will start off stage right for my first two ensemble changes, then it really is a lot of back and forth from right to left and many trips up to their dressing room. I don’t do any difficult changes—it’s mainly hanging up, setting up, and STAIRS! This is probably the easiest show I’ve ever worked on in terms of what it is. There are a lot of costumes, but most everything can be put on alone by the actress. Throughout the night, I will refill water, crack jokes, be a touchstone for them if they need it.
3. What are three pieces of advice you’d give to someone interested in becoming a dresser on Broadway?
These are 3 things that I have to tell myself constantly, so I’ll share them with you. I actually think they could pretty much pertain to anyone in any field.
Remain open to learning for life: In school, in jobs, in relationships, stay open to learning about it. So often, we think we need to know how to do everything—especially in the “professional” world. I’m going to tell you a secret though....You’re never gonna know how to do it all. So, mistakes in life are going to happen! Think of a musical that flops on Broadway, like closes in a day kinda flop. We have to assume that’s partly due to a few creative mistakes. So be kind to yourself when you don’t know how to do something. Ask for help or instruction. My supervisor at Spider-Man, Michael Hannah, once asked me to swing-tack something. I said ok, then kinda stood awkwardly. He looked at me and said, “Do you know what that is?”
“...No.” I replied.
He then went on to teach me and said from then on, if I didn’t know how, ask. He’d much rather instruct me then have to correct later.
People love to show they know how to do something—even if they don’t give off that feeling. Trust me.
Try your best not to gossip: Listen, this one is always something I have to watch in myself, so I’m not saying I’m a saint. I’m just reminding all of us, try to keep it together. I love a good pour of T with my best backstage Judy just like anyone but IT WILL GET BACK 99% OF THE TIME! And I’m not talking about who’s kissing who; I mean like putting down co-workers or your boss etc. Backstage is way more intimate then you think, and you never know who’s on the other side of a rack. I have not experienced anything like that on The Prom, but I have in the past—witnessed it or stupidly been the one with the mouth. Connections in this business play a way bigger part then you may think, and people won’t always remember how well your dying skills are but they WILL remember that you said: “Insert piece of gossip here”. So, give a good look around the space, and really think if it’s worth saying.
Nurture your “People Skills, and “Learn How to Read a Room”: This one is so important for dressing in any capacity. This world is filled with endless amounts of people who each have their own personality just like you have yours. And we must all co-exist. And sometimes that’s in a backstage setting for a few hours every night. This again really is an umbrella advice for all but for dressing especially. The interaction between an actor and their dresser is I believe a very close intimate relationship. I had a mentor who would always say, “Honey, when the clothes come off—the real person steps out.” Now that could sound creepy if taken out of context, but here it really is a short way of saying that we see it all. As dressers, we celebrate when you triumph and we lend an ear when you feel defeated. So, it’s a good idea to learn how to adapt to varying people or environments. You don’t have to be a robot, you can still be your beautiful self, but know when to step back. At the end of the day, you’re there to see they have what they need to have a smooth successful show that night. Sometimes especially if you’re new to an already open show, it’s best to step back and observe. So often I hear people comment on how someone was “too familiar” too quickly. It can sometimes result in less work.
I know you didn’t ask for a 4th piece of advice, but I will ask that you consider this my Patti LuPone PSA. Walk to the right Backstage. 9 out of 10 people will walk to the right in a hall or stairwell. Don’t be the one on the left, gunking up the gears! (Said in a bad Patti voice) “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” Thank you.
4. In your position, I imagine relationships are paramount to longevity. How do you foster relationships with the actors you dress and the designers whose costumes and visions you are responsible for?
Oh I love that question! Well I already mentioned above about people skills and reading a room. I think that is a very important part of it. I pride myself on most of the time being a light, warm but total beautiful weirdo. I feel people like to work with me.
Now when it comes to the actual costumes and designers, costumes are the closest thing to the actor—so it’s going to get looked at for sure. The more you can know about the design of it as well as the care for it, the better. If you are blessed to be on a long-running show that doesn’t mean you get a whole new set of costumes every year. Running doesn’t always mean MORE BUDGET!!!!! So, take care yo’ sh**! Kinky Boots closed this past weekend, and its leading Lola, J Harrison Ghee, wore almost every single costume piece that was built for him back in 2014 when he was in the First National Tour as a Lola understudy. I had to learn how it would react to being packed up, traveled, pulled out, dry cleaned in a different location every time. And then it was under the care of his amazing dresser Kurt on Broadway. So, remember next time you iron and you think you don’t need a pressing cloth. Or that you want to put steam on velvet. You might be stuck looking at that mistake for a long time.
Designers sometimes, you get varied degrees of interaction. Just because you’re in wardrobe doesn’t mean you get good one on one time with the designer. They often are at a table in the house during tech with any given amount of assistants. I have been really fortunate to work with Tony Award winner Gregg Barnes quite a few times. I have even been more fortunate to get to know him as a person, and why he designed a particular thing. And I always soak up that moment. I even got to sit down and interview him a few weeks ago for almost two hours about his designing Kinky Boots. And even though I don’t work with those costumes anymore, it expands my view on why someone might do something. On The Prom, I only was present for two fittings involving designer Ann Roth. All the rest she did, I wasn’t at. She however made it clear how she wanted Emma’s Prom finale costume to look during that time. And I took note. Don’t be so quick to say some little tiny design element isn’t important. Designers sometimes have pull in you getting hired, so really try to dance with them in the fire. Whoa, I’m rhyming like Dr. Seuss now...
Also supervisor and other dresser relationships are so important. You never know who might get moved up and be your boss on the next project. My current supervisor, Carrie Kamerer, was another dresser with me on Spider-Man. We hadn’t worked together in years but I have remained close and someone she can trust and I’m so honored she picked me to be a part of this beautiful show.
5. What do most people not know or understand about your position?
Well if you were like me before I started, you didn’t even know the position existed. We sometimes take the act of changing clothes and think, “well why would you need help? I get myself dressed every day. Anyone could do that.” But I don’t try to change my clothes top to bottom in 20 seconds. That takes some help! And aside from changes, I really feel like wardrobe can be a heartbeat to the show just by creating a friendly, light environment. And you know where it’s really fun on Broadway right now? The Prom! I love our show so much and its message. While I might not be working with huge headpieces and leather boots this time, I do help maintain a tux and a sweet prom dress of two people in love. And that love is at the core of our story told 8 times a week at the Longacre on 48th! Come dance with us!!!
Don't miss 'The Prom' at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.