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magazine home > archives > summer 2004 > features

U of M alumna Anne Ippolito is well suited for her role as a dresser for award -winning productions on the big stage.

Dressed for Success
by Bridget Moriarity

 
Anne Ippolito
 
U of M alumni Anne Ippolito in front of the poster for Thoroughly Modern Millie.

It's 6:30 p.m. - an hour and a half before show time - on a wintry Friday evening at Manhattan's Marquis Theatre on 46th Street and Broadway. Amid sequined dresses, tailored suits and retro props, Anne Tate Wilkerson Ippolito (BFA '73) buzzes about backstage at the Broadway production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, the winner of six 2002 Tony awards, including "Best Musical." In the theatre's narrow offstage hallways a powder-faced Delta Burke, prepares for her role as the geisha-clad schemer Mrs. Meers. (Shortly after this evening, Burke was replaced by her former TV co-star on the hit show Designing Women, Dixie Carter, who is also a U of M alumna.)

Based on the 1967 Oscar-winning film of the same title, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the tale of a 20-something who travels from Kansas to Manhattan in the Roaring '20s in search of flashy personalities and foreign cityscapes. In a like-minded pursuit, Ippolito has forged a career path from Memphis that has spanned the globe, landing her back in the Big Apple as a dresser for the play.

A dressing room fixture

As one of the show's 13 dressers, Ippolito maintains the elaborate outfits and facilitates wardrobe changes of three principal actors and six ensemble cast members. In Millie's case, that entails overseeing the Tony-award winning costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz.

Ippolito's job is more choreographed than one might imagine. She presses her assigned characters' shirts and pants, polishes their shoes and hangs their costumes in show order with cufflinks and tie clips in place. And just as an overprotective mother might, she transports her assigned actors' "discards" - a theatre euphemism for dirty laundry - to and from the laundry station, doling out a clean pair of underwear for each show. When one of her ensemble cast members is ready for a costume change, Ippolito is waiting in the wings with a laundry basket, a drop cloth and a kneeling pad - poised to unzip and undo. During the second and final acts of the play, Ippolito presets her actors' personal clothes and tidies up their dressing rooms, enabling their swift escape from the building.

A regular presence in private dressing rooms, a dresser must learn to adapt to the unique identities and preferences of her assigned performers. "It's like an archaeological dig," says Ippolito. "I take a look at their dressing room and see how they like their things set out. There's no discussion, I just watch."

When an actor left the role of Mr. Trevor Graydon and a new one filled the part, Ippolito had to re-tailor her approach. The character, who is the show's big-dealing businessman and one of Ippolito's assigned principal actors, was formerly played by Ben Davis, who took a role in La Boheme in Los Angeles. Kevin Earley subsequently slid into the role of Graydon. "Ben was an opera singer," Ippolito recalls. "He used to say 'I don't want to be seen in my skivvies.'" On the other hand, the less bashful Earley assured Ippolito that he was "'an open door type of guy.'"

Hair sprouts a career

Often guided by her instincts, Ippolito has been on quite a journey since her college days at the University of Memphis where her acting adventures began. Under the direction of Keith Kennedy, then chair of the U of M Theatre Department, Ippolito was an ensemble actor in the 1970 campus production of Hair - one of the experiences she credits for her long-lived career. "It was very controversial at that time to do that show in Memphis with that kind of language, but now it's what you'd hear on television," recounts Ippolito.

Upon graduating magna cum laude with a BFA in acting, Ippolito won a scholarship to the University of New Orleans where she received her MFA in acting and directing. In 1976 she accepted a teaching post at the University of Florida where she met her husband, Joseph, a fellow assistant professor of theatre, who is currently the head carpenter for Billy Joel's Broadway hit, Movin' Out.

On the Road

Ippolito and her husband formed a small company on the Florida campus with student actors. Anne and Joseph, who also designed the productions, took turns directing. In 1982 the company performed El Grande de Coca Cola, which had made its Manhattan debut off-Broadway in 1973. Eager to travel, Ippolito's husband suggested she call the United Service Organization, a nonprofit group that provides recreational services to uniformed military personnel, to inquire if it would sponsor an overseas tour for the company. "Well, I called," Ippolito says, "and I got Col. Frank on the phone. He had to pick one show. He said, 'You're in Florida? You got pretty girls?'" Col. Frank ultimately chose Ippolito's production to tour Germany, Iceland and Italy on behalf of the USO. "I decided I liked it," Anne says of the itinerant life.

Ippolito and Jue

"Anne has a real nurturing quality," says Millie cast member Francis Jue, pictured here shortly before a show on a Sunday in April. "She's extrememly intuitive, and her acting training has given her insight into what it's like to have had a god or bad day (as an actor)."

And so began Ippolito's on-the-road acting adventures, which would land her in such international locations as Martinique and Paris. "I've switched off between titles, but the role of dresser kind of chose me," says Ippolito, whose resumealso features several stints as a wardrobe supervisor and assistant wardrobe supervisor. Her first experience as a dresser was in 1983. Joseph landed a job with Mame, starring Angela Landsbury, and Ippolito worked as an assistant to Landsbury's dresser.

In the fall of 2001, after traveling to Tokyo and nearly every American state with the Benny Company tour of Rent, Ippolito moved to New York City, where Joseph was offered a job as head carpenter for the Broadway show, Noises Off. Ippolito was working for The Full Monty on Broadway as a dresser when she approached Millie's wardrobe supervisor, Deborah Cheretun, whom she had worked with on the Broadway production of Showboat in 1995-96. "I knew that Full Monty didn't have much time left (the production closed the summer after Ippolito left), and I just had an instinct about Millie," Ippolito recalls.

Stage "Mom"

As part of her duties of maintaining the actors' costumes, Ippolito sends tattered shoes to the shoe repair station, which comes equipped with every imaginable polish and accouterment from bone-tipping to patent leather. One of Ippolito's assigned actors, Francis Jue, who played Bun Foo through last spring, had an emotional attachment to a particularly beat-up pair of canvas shoes. An identical, brand new pair sat on Jue's dressing room shelf, but Ippolito maintained his original pair, sending them to the shoe repair station for multiple repatchings. Jue also routinely ripped his costumes. Woven in silk, they were particularly vulnerable to the hazards of performing, but Ippolito believes that a performer's unique body chemistry - which includes everything from an actor's on-stage antics to the amount of makeup they use - is a contributing factor as well.

These subtle observations underscore Ippolito's ability to hone in on the frequency of an actor's performance each night, maintains Jue, who left Millie for a role in another production last spring. "As little as two weeks ago, I had a panic attack in the middle of the night," Jue says. "All sorts of worries that I've suppressed about my family all being in California and about what I was doing here came to the surface. I arrived at the theatre, and I was scared about going on stage. Anne immediately picked up on the fact that I wasn't myself. Among everyone in the company - and some of these people I've worked with for years - Anne was the one who really took the time to take care of me. She asked me, 'Are you OK?' And I said, 'Yes, I'm fine.' But she said, 'No I don't think that you are.' I just had terrible stage fright that night, and Anne's confidence in me and her observations about my performance were so perceptive. She really helped me through this crisis of confidence. She's a remarkable person."

Cinematic leanings

While the fate of a play is precariously balanced on ticket sales, Ippolito has never worried about finding work, even given the current downturn on Broadway. "If you've been in the business a long time, people know who you are," reflects Ippolito. As a member of a union for theatre professionals, which requires a yearly payment of $180 along with a one-time payment of $1,000 and an initiation fee of $25, Anne receives health insurance and is ensured certain workers' rights.

At presstime, Millie was scheduled to close at the end of June, and Ippolito planned to look for work on one of the new shows on Broadway this fall. "It is just the nature of this business - go to another show!" she says.

Still, Ippolito has begun to take union classes in film studies to learn the ins-and-outs of wardrobe work in film. She has one movie credential already under her belt, having worked as a wardrobe staff member on the 1995 film Basquiat. "I'd love to become involved with film productions," Ippolito says. "The money's a lot better, too."

Backstage at the Marquis Theatre, this journalist is ill-equipped to venture into the downpour outside. Ippolito insists on giving me one of her spare umbrellas. "My husband tells me to stop buying them - I have too many around the house," she says.

Apparently such excessive preparedness is a work-related handicap.

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