Interview: LJ Wright on Life as a Dresser in Disney's Aladdin on Broadway
LJ Wright has worked as a dresser in Aladdin on Broadway for several years, where she manages costumes and styles actors backstage. Her journey to Aladdin has been filled with many small steps and lots of hard work. But the years of paying her dues have paid off, with the fulfillment of her dream to work in theatre professionally and the added bonus of working with her best friends on the business they have built together. Now she's sharing lessons learned backstage and sneak peeks into her life as a member of the Gagged Girl Gang (www.gaggedchokers.com).
What kind of artist would you describe yourself as?
I would have to say that I’m an observing artist. Every creative outlet in my life requires being a sponge, and being in tune and alert with what’s going on around me.
How did you get your start in the arts?
It actually took me about 3 years struggling in NYC before I got to the point I wanted to be at. I just worked as hard as possible and said yes to every opportunity. I didn’t have many connections moving to the city, so I starting working on off-off-Broadway shows and working a million survival jobs on the side. I just tried to make good connections, and build my reputation as a hard worker. Eventually I worked up to dressing and wardrobe supervising off-Broadway for about a year, and then finally got my first show on Broadway.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a dresser?
I was a musical theater major in college, so I always wanted to be in that world or working backstage in some way. My senior year I got an internship with a local children’s theater and I worked in their costume shop for a year. I think I can pinpoint that experience as the turning point for me. It just clicked that this was my passion and what I wanted to do with my life. I had never felt so fulfilled and excited about work, creating these whimsical designs for their shows and seeing them transform into something beautiful on stage. I still feel that today. My greatest joy is knowing I’m a small part of this grand project. We all have to be working at full capacity to make the shows that so many people get to love and enjoy.
How did you get your first few jobs in theatre?
My first few jobs in NYC were as a theater intern actually; I was just trying to get my foot in the door. So I would basically do everything, props, costumes, ticketing. Whatever they needed! I did a lot of work for free before I actually was able to do what I wanted to! My first few Broadway jobs I got through connections I had made. People would recommend me to the wardrobe supervisor and then I got called in for interviews. It was really humbling and amazing to see how my early work really started to pay off later.
How would you define collaboration?
On a personal level, collaboration is listening to the needs of your teammates and being able to communicate what you need as well. Working in theater is such a clear barometer for collaboration . . . things just fall apart if one single cog in the wheel isn’t operating at full capacity. It’s absolutely crucial to what we do.
What problems, if any, do you regularly come up against when working with someone else?
I would have to say the biggest problems are normally lack of communication. Sometimes there can a gap between dressers and the people that work on our costumes during the days. I try to eliminate any confusion by writing notes and making the costumes notes clear. For the most part I get through my eight shows a week pretty drama free!
Have you ever had a bad experience collaborating with someone?
I have back in the days when I used to work for designers. Broadway has in general been a pretty pleasant experience for me though. There’s normally a learning curve in adjusting to new supervisors or a new actor, and getting used to different ways of working or coping with stress. That’s really part of your job as a dresser though, to be a chameleon and adjust to the needs of others around you. I try to meet my actors' needs to the best of my ability, and understand where they’re coming from.
What qualities do you look for in a collaborator?
Someone who isn’t afraid to say exactly what they need or want. I hate passive aggressive comments or talking behind someone’s back when it’s more productive to handle an issue face to face. I also look for someone who won’t steamroll me and will listen to my ideas too.
How do you handle adjusting to new cast members in Aladdin, particularly now since Courtney [Reed] has left the show and you've worked together so closely for so long?
I touched on this earlier but there’s definitely a learning curve. And it can be hard emotionally, since we become such a little family. You can definitely get attached, and it’s hard to say goodbye! But it’s also great and exciting to have a new energy in the show, onstage and behind the scenes as well. It’ll be fun for me to meet and adjust to my new Jasmines! But I of course will forever love and miss my sweet Courtney.
If you had any choice in the world, who would be your collaboration dream team? What kind of project would you work on?
Oh man! It would depend on what area in my life, but style-wise I would love to collaborate with Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. I respect and admire his work so much. My dream collaboration styling would be him and Gigi Hadid: she’s stunning and can pull everything off so well. Broadway is hard because I love working with my friends! Really any collaboration with dressers and actors that I love is rewarding. Dressing Courtney at Aladdin has been a dream collaboration for sure.
How would you describe a typical workday?
A typical weekday is normally afternoons filled with random meetings and photo shoots. Sometimes Gagged [Chokers] work, social media, or daywork/rehearsals at Aladdin. Head to the theater around 5:30, sign in, grab laundry, and start my presets. Courtney normally arrives after most of my steaming or prep work is done and I have time to fix anything and visit with her, get her water bottles, etc. Then I have various quick changes and cues throughout the show, dressing her, one ensemble lady, and the genie. At end of show I do laundry and greet any of my guests at stagedoor. I normally end the night by grabbing drinks with friends from other shows or chilling at home with my boyfriend depending on how tired I am from the day. It’s hard to have a “typical” weekday because to be honest my weeks are all so different!
What resources do you use, both regional and otherwise, in your career?
I think the biggest (and kind of only) resource most dressers use is our local union in NYC. It not only protects us and supplies us with rules in the workplace but you can go to them with questions about almost anything.
What's the hardest thing about being a dresser? What's the most rewarding?
Hardest thing about being a dresser is sometimes putting your own emotional needs or desires on the back burner because your job is to be there to serve your actors’ needs first. Also it can be extremely hard on your body sometimes, especially carrying heavy baskets of costumes or kneeling a lot during quick changes. The most rewarding part is the relationships you build with everyone backstage. And seeing the audience response, knowing you’ve produced something great as a team.
What advice would you give other dressers and costume designers starting out in the business?
Keep working, keep your nose to the ground and hustle even when it doesn’t look like anything is paying off. That and KINDNESS. Being a kind human is one of the most important things about working in our industry. Care about other people and listen. Never be “too good” for any project or person, you never know where it will lead or how tables may turn.
Who would you say has been your greatest champion/supporter in your career?
I can’t say I have one mentor or supporter I look up to, but I definitely have several supervisors and dressers I talk to when I need advice or encouragement. My best friends Sarah and Teale also happen to be dressers so we get a lot of strength and support from each other, since so few people understand our job and its strange quirks. My family has always been extremely supportive and encouraging as well. I don’t want to think about where I’d be without motivating talks from my sweet Mom. Courtney Reed is a big one too because I definitely wouldn’t be at Aladdin without her requesting me as her dresser.
How do you define success as an independent artist?
Not feeling like you are “working.” It’s simple really, but ultimate success as an artist is fulfilling your passion in life and doing what you’ve been gifted to do.
What would you say is your biggest achievement?
Just surviving in New York for so long. And doing the job that I moved here to do. I guess just being able to accomplish my dream.
If you weren't a dresser, what would you be doing?
It’s along the same lines, but I would love to be a celebrity stylist.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10?
Still working on Broadway as a principal dresser, probably doing more TV work. Maybe by 10 years I’ll be able to take more vacations but I’d love to keep doing what I’m doing now. Hopefully I’ll have bought an apartment in NYC by then!
How did you get involved in Gagged Chokers?
By being a dresser at Aladdin, it was just something we discussed and came up with backstage!
And what role do you play in the company?
We don’t really have titles to our roles, most of us wear many hats. I mostly physically make the chokers with Courtney, occasionally help design and pick out trims, and model. I also help post on social media and fulfill orders from our website.
What's it like working with the other ladies on Gagged Chokers?
It’s the bomb! We work really well together, and always manage to make it fun. Most of us have to work around show schedules so we do meetings in dressing rooms, etc. It’s honestly so great. I love this group of girls.
How did you learn to run a business? What lessons have you learned over the last year?
Well we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! It’s definitely been on a trial and error basis. We just put things out there and are constantly taught by our consumers what works and what doesn’t. We’ve learned a lot this year about our business model, how our clients respond to building up hype over certain collections, as well as trying out some new products and sensing the response to that.
Where do you see Gagged Chokers going in the future?
The future is limitless! But we’ve definitely been looking in the direction of incorporating new, different products as part of our brand.
And what business advice would you give to other artists?
Don’t spread yourself too thin. If you already have a full time job on Broadway it can be too much to add to sometimes. Really the only way you can get it done is if you have a fierce group of collaborators that are hard workers and can get the job done collectively. Teamwork is everything! Also don’t do it to make the money, start a business of something you actually love and that brings you joy regardless of the response from others.
You can follow LJ and her adventures backstage on Instagram at @itsljwright. And stay tuned as we continue to feature her work, as well as the work of the other ladies of Gagged Chokers, at Indicoe this January (http://www.gaggedchokers.com/)!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.