Choreography commonly refers to action that happens onstage. But in some special circumstances, the action behind the scenes has to be choreographed as well.
Swift Creek Mill's "A Tuna Christmas" is one of those situations. In this holiday-themed visit to tiny Tuna, Texas, just two actors, Richard Koch and John Hagadorn, play all of the town's residents. Pulling that off requires literally dozens of quick costume changes, potentially hampering the flow of the show if not for the carefully synchronized work of two hardworking assistants known as dressers.
"For some changes, the time we have to get Richard or John out of one costume and into the next is so tight that we definitely had to choreograph our steps," explains Alia Radabaugh, who, along with Vicki McLeod, works as a dresser for "Tuna." "There are opportunities for a variety of mishaps otherwise."
McLeod generally assists Koch, who happens to be her husband, while Radabaugh focuses on Hagadorn. But sometimes, they have to double-up on an actor. "Richard has four or five more changes than John," says Radabaugh. "And for a couple of them, Vicki has to work on his top half with a shirt, jacket and wig while I am changing boots and tucking in pants."
Radabaugh's ten years as a seamstress at the Mill makes her the perfect dresser. She worked with costume designer Maura Lynch Cravey in crafting the clothes for "Tuna," often making the customizations required to facilitate quick changes. "I can often see in real time what's needed and suggest that maybe some Velcro should go here or maybe this should be one piece instead of two," says Radabaugh. "Maura and I work together very closely and, for decisions that don't affect the design, I have some discretion."
Her experience also landed her an ongoing gig as a dresser for the Broadway in Richmond touring shows that come through town, like "Elf the Musical" that is closing today. But that experience is a lot different than "Tuna." "I've done some shows with big casts like 'The Lion King' or 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,'" she says. "I'm mostly making sure costume pieces are where they're supposed to be, almost like a maid picking up after the actors. For 'Tuna,' Vicki and I are moving the entire show, either preparing for a change or actually making one."
Radabaugh is largely self-taught as a seamstress, hired to work for the summer shows at Dogwood Dell after volunteering there in high school. She has progressed to acting as costume designer for shows like last year's "The Secret Garden" produced by SPARC and a recent production of "Smile" at the Appomattox Regional Governor's School. She says there's nothing like the excitement of actually working a show, though. "There is a kind of secret world backstage," she says. "For every five people on stage, there could be 15 milling about in the wings. It's one of the coolest things that people don't realize about theater."
Running: Just like the holiday sales, local stage productions start closing down next weekend. The last performance of Whistle Stop's “Little Women” will be Dec. 16 out in Ashland and the color drains from “Scrooge in Rouge” at Richmond Triangle Players on Dec. 17. You'll have until New Year's Day to catch the Virginia Rep shows “The Charitable Sisterhood Christmas Spectacular” and “A Christmas Story” while “A Tuna Christmas” celebrates at Swift Creek Mill until Jan. 7.