Thirty Years A Dresser is more than a memoir of behind the scenes. It is an insightful glance of what happens back stage during the run of some of the greatest shows of the theatre. With more than (the proclaimed) thirty years of experience of being a dresser, Mr. Dennis Milam Bensie’s account is an enjoyable tour-de-force that will educate as well as entertain the reader.
Mr. Bensie recalls a plethora of adventures being backstage at many theatres. He’s worked on some of the greatest (and not so great) shows to grace a stage. Not only recalling these performances, the author tells wonderful stories about the things that go on behind the curtain. In order to make the ‘stigmata’ appearing in Agnes of God a ‘blood vest’ was needed to squirt out on request. What could wrong with that? Mr. Bensie tells us in great comic style. For Bye Bye Birdie, the costume changes needed to be instantaneous and had to be done within a moment…in complete darkness. Going Into the Woods may seem to be a jolly adventure for the characters, but for the dressers there were situations with hats, wigs and costumes all coming apart on stage.
It is the job of a dresser to get the actor(s) changed quickly and ready for the next scene. Usually these costume changes were done with great professional agility, at other times…not so much. Several instances where parts of a costume were hastily overlooked are recalled. An actress forgetting to put on a skirt and having to do the ice-skating scene in pantyhose is one of the lesser embarrassing moments to happen on stage. Another would be when underwear was forgotten during an intense dance scene (with skirts spinning up to reveal everything) or during a birthing scene that might have been a little too visual for the front row viewers. There is also the time when, through no fault of the actors or dresser, the wrong costume was delivered and instead of four all-black ‘ninja’ costumes, the complete ensemble for the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was sent instead. Not the best statement when trying to perform The King and I.
The stories don’t only recall what happens backstage. There are several accounts of misbehaving audience members as well. From a young gay and enthusiastic couple reciting lines along with “Martha” and “George” from a production of Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf to an instance during Our Town where a woman only a few rows back decided to answer (and converse) on her cell phone during the production. (An irate cast member confronted the woman after the show with the firm reprimand of “If you can’t leave your cellphone at home, then YOU should stay home!”) Even worse are the stories about actors that are on their cellphones as soon as they arrive backstage – ignoring all queues or attempts at changing their costumes.
As can be expected there are many stories here about the behavior of the actors themselves. Many of them have earned their place on the stage, some were put there because of their names, and there are a few that have no business being there in the first place. There are those that won’t travel without their dogs or their accessories or even their particular peculiarities. Some actors are downright rude (one actor from To Kill a Mockingbird was dubbed “Atticus Bitch”) or even have drinking issues before, during, after or even on stage. One disturbing story happened during the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast involving sexual harassment by some of the performers. Many of these people are disguised by aliases such as “Not Jennifer Aston” (an overly enthusiastic actress with a narcoleptic shopping problem) or “Not Meryl Streep” (a woman who was such a diva she practically fired everyone back stage), or even “Not Jeremy Irons” (an actor that had no business being on stage and made it miserable for everyone cast member). Several real names are used such as in the case where Rosie O’Donnell (in her performance of ‘Rizzo’ from Grease) who jokingly (?) offered to let her dresser step in for her as Rizzo. Or the pride the Tony nominated actress Nan Martin took in sharing her stories of being “Freddy Krueger’s mother” from The Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
There are also stories that are not so much fun. For Angels in America, KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma) needed to be painted on the skin of some of the actors. The reality of these telltale signs of early HIV/AIDS inspired more depression than creativity during the run of one of America’s greatest plays. In another instance ‘Skid marks’ were left in white silk pants (every night) during Titus Andronicus. Another actor that had such bad body odor that it actually permeated into the costume itself defying any kind of cleanser available. (Did you know that vodka works better than Febreeze?)
Mr. Bensie has survived it all. His recollections are amusing, an easy read and very enjoyable. Whether you are a theatre fanatic or a novice, these stories are delightful and informative not only about the theatre but also human behavior and how we react to the odd situations presented to us. The collected stories have provided a fun romp behind the scenes of a long theatrical career. Dennis Bensie has fresh new insight into the second oldest profession – the theatre.