The Choreography of SNL Costume Changes

The show is live. You play completely different characters in back-to-back skits. You’ve got less than two minutes to change from one to the other, while the backstage area is crowded with other actors doing the same thing. It could be chaos, yet the cast members of Saturday Night Live do it every week. They do it with the help of dressers, who are skilled at getting everything right in no time flat. Keith Shaw has been a dresser for years, both in TV and for Broadways shows, and gives us some insight into the logistics of getting the SNL cast ready on a tight schedule, over and over.  

AVC: How quick is a quick change?

KS: We can do a total change from one big costume to another, with wig and makeup changes, in 45 seconds. It’s kind of like a Nascar pit crew.

AVC: What has to happen for one to run smoothly?

KS: The actor has to be calm. Calm, calm, calm. And just help as much as they can. The worst thing they can do is freak out or panic that they’ll miss their cue. It is much easier for them to just stand still rather than panic and scream, “Hurry up!” Newbies, generally speaking, tend to freak out more, but once they get used to the speed and time pressure they calm down. They get what needs to happen, and know they have to help as much as possible.

On my side of things, at SNL, we have racks with all the costumes the actor will be wearing that show, so I’ll already have the next one ready. I’ll have the pants on the floor, puddled in a pile, so they’d drop one pair and just step over into the other one and pull them up. While they’re doing that, you’re taking the top part of their costume off.

At SNL everyone has both a wardrobe person and a hair and makeup person. It’s a tag-team if I need to change clothing and they need to change a wig or add a mustache. It can get really complicated if the space is small or the costume is big, or if the actor is tall, because then you need a step ladder just to reach them. One dresser does the hosts; she’s of average height, but if there’s an athlete hosting, those guys are just enormous. They tower over her. So that’s rough, especially since the hosts often have the most or quickest changes because they’re probably in every sketch.

Read the entirety of this fascinating interview at the A.V. Club.

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