Maybe I made the wrong career choice. It felt like plays were competing with film. Moviemaking special effects had become quite sophisticated. The technical demands at my little theatre were becoming greater and greater.
My benchmark for this was a new play called Tongue of a Bird. The script didn’t suggest a ton of bells and whistles. Yet the director wanted all kinds of unusual things: a vending machine to magically appear and spit coffee on cue, a airplane cockpit to pop out of the floor and rise several feet in the air (with actors inside) to name a few. Also, one of the actresses needed to fly all over the stage, even doing flip-flops in the air. All of the director’s ideas were given the green light.
I walked into the auditorium on what was supposed to be the first day of dress/tech rehearsal. Only a small section of the set was complete. It was a shocking sight: panicked carpenters were scrambling. There was no way we could begin teching the show without a set for actors to walk on.
A full company meeting was called that afternoon.
“This is not your fault,” the managing director told the entire staff. She held the theatre’s purse strings and I was glad to hear her say that out loud. It certainly wasn’t our fault, but cast and crew were going to be held accountable. The first preview was canceled and rescheduling it for the next Monday, our only day off.
I saw this happen again and again: working on a big show with not enough time or people to do it sanely. The expectations were getting bigger, but the budgets and pay were not. Flyers and mailers started popping up around town.
“Are you tired of working harder backstage for less pay? Then come tell us about it.”
IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, was doing a sweep of the city seeking new members. We were ready for a change and it didn’t take much for the organization to gain our trust. Ironically, it was during The Taming of the Shrew that seventeen workers favorably voted for the union to represent our interests. More backstage drama would soon occur.
A dozen or so people would spend a year creating the first union contract for my theatre. Negotiations were divided into two camps: theatre management facing IATSE (representing the technical staff). I was proud to be at the bargaining table for every meeting as the contract was written. Everything we asked for to do our jobs safely and sanely boiled down to more money that the theatre claimed it did not have. We hammered out agreements over working conditions, minimum staffing, health and welfare, and eventually wages.
One day, after IATSE union negotiations turned to wages, my boss (the production manager) walked into my office.
“Did you punch in?” he asked me.
“We have a time clock now,” he announced with pride. It was his idea of efficiently “doing business”. The new time clock was located by the stage door and there was a time card for every technical staff member (no one else had a timecard, just us techies).
I went down to clock in for my work call for The Turn of the Screw and noticed immediately my name and my hourly wage was computer-printed on top of the timecard for all to see: Dennis Milam – $8.00 an hour. I could also see the names and hourly wages of all my tech co-workers by easily glancing at their timecards, which were stored neatly next to mine. I, the dresser, was the lowest paid person in the production department. Not surprising, since being a dresser is thought of as a “pink collar” job: less valuable work done by women (or gay men).
For the first time in my ten years of working in professional theatre, I started punching a time clock before and after work.
Ironically, the time clock never had the correct time.
A few weeks later, back at the union contract bargaining table, there was a heated discussion about one of my co-workers working two jobs: leaving early to work at another venue that paid more money. I spoke up in his defense.
“Well, now that we are being required to punch a time clock…”
I barely got the words “time clock” out of my mouth, when I saw all the heads on the union side of the table jerk up.
“TIME CLOCK?” the business head of IATSE yelled (I’ll call her Ms. IATSE). She was furious. “You guys just started punching a TIME CLOCK?”
I watched the members of the theatre’s side of the negotiation table slowly turn red and sink into their chairs. The divide between IATSE and my theatre just got wider.
“We need to take a recess to caucus,” Ms. IATSE announced.
As soon as the members of the theatre bargaining team left the room, Ms. IATSE started pounding me with questions.
“Where is the time clock?”
“When did you start punching in?”
“How were you told about the time clock?”
“Who else at this theatre is being asked to punch in and out?”
I answered all Ms. IATSE’s questions honestly. All the other union camp watched and scribbled notes in their files. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was very serious.
“We’ve got them in a corner. Tell them to come back into the room,” she said. Ms. IATSE was a seasoned professional and I had grown to love her. This woman was tough as nails. For months, she carefully guided us through the long process of unionizing our theatre. She loved us, protected us, and no one messed with Ms. IATSE or her people.
The managing director, the production manager, and a few other managers from my theatre slowly came back into the conference room after our caucus. They knew they were in hot water.
Ms. IATSE cleared her throat and began addressing the room with calm confidence.
“I’ve been filled in on the details of the new time clock. Since only those workers that are covered under the contract were asked to punch in on this time clock, and since this time clock was installed during our negotiations, there is no other way for IATSE to view this matter other than as harassment.”
Ms. IATSE leaned into the table face first and continued speaking in an even quieter tone. You could hear a pin drop.
“That time clock is illegal. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees could sue you. And that we just might do. That is all I have to say for today.”
We quickly adjourned. After the meeting, I was scolded by Ms. IATSE for not telling her about the time clock sooner. I was simply naïve.
The time clock remained for the time being.
Less than a half hour after the meeting ended, there were a bunch of new timecards by the time clock. To deflect guilt, theatre management asked everyone to punch the time clock: the box office staff, the marketing people, the janitor. New timecards were maniacally handwritten and didn’t reveal anyone’s wages.
A week later, the notorious time clock was gone, leaving big holes where it was screwed to the wall.
“What happened to the time clock?” I asked my boss.
“It made the math too hard,” he answered sheepishly and changed the subject.
I got very emotional after we unanimously voted to accept our first IATSE contract. Ms. IATSE thanked me in front of my coworkers and they applauded.
It was the beginning of a new chapter for me, personally and professionally. At thirty-three years old, I finally had a pension and a more solid means of health care. I could work as a theatrical dresser and stop living like a gypsy.
Working in the arts was a valid career choice after all.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.