Success in Show Business

by Shelby Dandrea, '15

Whitworth alumnus Courtney Alfrey, '11, gets paid to hang out with Timon, Pumbaa, Ed, and Banzai – key characters in the Broadway musical “The Lion King.” Alfrey is living the dream of many theatre majors all across the country: working on Broadway in New York City. 

Alfrey found his home in show business not long after arriving in the Big Apple. With a 50-pound suitcase, a backpack with a laptop and résumés, and a professional portfolio, Alfrey, who goes by "Court," was ready to begin his search for a job in wardrobe in the theatre business. Alfrey said with "chance, a dream, determination, a little smile, and a whole lot of luck," he now works in the Broadway district of New York on Disney Theatrics' production of "The Lion King," housed at The Minskoff Theatre in New York City. 

The theatre is located in the heart of Times Square, just a 25-minute subway ride for Alfrey from his apartment in Astoria, in Queens. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with one of his coworkers from the play, turning the living room into another bedroom, and saving on the cost of rent, which is $1,800 a month plus the cost of utilities split between the two.

Alfrey is one of 16 full-time wardrobe dressers during the show. He is a principal dresser for four of the principal men in the show. He deals with the needs of "his" actors in the dressing rooms, and during the show gets them dressed and in their puppets, costume pieces that are designed to look like characters and are worn by actors, backstage. Alfrey is responsible for the characters of Timon, Pumbaa, Ed, and Banzai. However, Alfrey did more than just costumes before he arrived in New York.

During his time at Whitworth, Alfrey was an active performance-track theatre major with a dance minor. He was involved in several productions and dance performances each year. Alfrey also helped create the position of wardrobe master/mistress in the theatre department, which is still a paid position today. In that position, while also often performing in a mainstage production, Alfrey would be dressing actors when not on stage and taking care of the costumes for the productions.

Alfrey moved to New York City on Sept. 2, 2012 after working a year-long internship as the costume intern with the Florida Studio Theatre, in Sarasota, Fla. Alfrey had previously started working on his application to join the Local 764 Theatrical Wardrobe Union that has members working in all aspects of costume and wardrobe in the New York City area. With the application process under way, Alfrey was closer to attempting to show prospective employers in New York theatres that he was serious about his work.

Alfrey was sleeping on the couches of friends at night, but was busy making himself known during the day. He papered the Broadway district with his résumé, showing his smile to every theatre, he said, even if it was only to the security personnel at the stage door. He followed up with every theatre that he visited with a thank-you note and a phone call, making sure that the wardrobe supervisors had received his documents. While most places were not hiring, Alfrey kept looking. 

Alfrey soon received a tip that "The Lion King" might be looking for extra day-work employees, and he submitted his résumé, even though he had already given them his résumé. However, he got a call saying they were still not looking.

But just hours after he was turned down, Alfrey received another call informing him that there was, in fact, an opening, and he was offered the position of swing dresser, or a substitute, for weekend shows. On Sept. 25, 2012, Alfrey started learning the track of the dresser (the dressing jobs and their order) and covered for him that weekend. He was asked after the shows if he wanted to learn a different track for the next weekend, and another track the weekend after that. 

Alfrey learned track after track, and soon was hired for the next four to five months to learn a new track and cover ones he already knew. After six months Alfrey knew all 16 tracks of the show, and could cover for anyone if needed. 

While Alfrey is now a primary dresser for the show, taking care of the costumes and changing of his actors, he also occasionally dresses a dancer or singer during the show. He started out in a position called a swing dresser, meaning he could substitute for any dresser's track at any given time, and could dress any actor in the show at any given time. "Basically, I know the show 16 different ways," Alfrey said. He still works as an internal swing dresser in times of trouble. He has the technical knowledge and skill that he can cover the harder tracks if needed.

"The Lion King" runs six days a week, with eight shows a week, plus weekly rehearsals, even though the show has already been running on Broadway since 1997. Since actors and technicians don't stick around forever, rehearsals are necessary. "There are always people coming and going from our show," Alfrey said, "and there are always creative team members visiting the production to make sure things are still on point." 

Alfrey also has 12 swing actors whom he dresses, who can play any combination of Timon, Pumbaa, Ed, and Banzai. He manages their specific needs when they are performing, and said that each day's show is different, depending upon who is on.

During his time starting out with "The Lion King," Alfrey also had the opportunity to work as a dresser on "Mamma Mia" when it was housed at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Alfrey believes that all theatre, no matter its level, should be created with the same passion as Broadway. Broadway, according to Alfrey, is just theatre at a more expensive level. Every theatre has its own community of people who work together to make a production happen. However, because "The Lion King" has been running for so long, the backstage atmosphere is that of a family, one that shares personal victories, defeats, birthdays, and other special events, he said. 

Outside of the Broadway world, Alfrey is a freelance wardrobe stylist on a new web series titled "Middle Stage." He also does various low-budget music-video wardrobe and personal alterations for private clients. He has designed for multiple "Lion King" benefit presentations for Broadway Cares and Equity Fights Aids fund-raisers, one of the biggest organizations in the theatre world that provides funds for people's needs.

While life is fast for Alfrey, he loves it. He is always able to find things to do outside of work. There is always something new to see, he said: museums to visit, and ways for him to discover things about himself. "I have learned to be me and to use the tools that I was taught in everything I do," Alfrey said. He has discovered that he loves traveling and learning about different cultures. 

Alfrey has been able to explore his own interests, as well as try other things he never thought he would have liked. He said he loves botanical gardens for their beauty and escape from the city, boutiques for their craftsmanship, and those hole-in-the-wall restaurants for their elbow- rubbing nature and their non-private conversations. "I still find myself wide-eyed and in awe of the world I live in daily," Alfrey said, "and know I am thankful and blessed for how I got here."