I had the opportunity to work with two actresses who wrote and performed their own one-woman shows. They happened only a few months apart.
One was Shakespeare for My Father by Lynn Redgrave.
The other play was (I will call) A Bunch of Stuff Happened by A-Not-Nearly –As-Famous-Actress-As-Lynn-Redgrave (who I will call “Betty”).
I worked on Betty’s show first.
Betty certainly had an impressive and successful career. She had gotten a Tony nomination a few years earlier for (what I will call) Other Stuff That Happened Before, but most people still didn’t really know her by name or by face. She showed up like the Queen of Sheba.
The company manager had a lot to tell me about Betty before I even got to meet her.
He put her in a nicer than average apartment for her three-week stay in the city. It wasn’t good enough for Betty.
He put her in a better apartment. It still wasn’t good enough for Betty.
The company manager then put her in a very swanky apartment complex downtown. It still wasn’t good enough …until he told Betty that the artistic director who hired her was in the apartment right below her. Then it was good enough for Betty.
Betty didn’t like the answering machine in her apartment. It was too complicated to use. Betty wanted a simpler one.
Three answering machines later, Betty was provided with something like a My First Answering Machine by Fisher Price: easy enough for Betty to use.
Betty needed to run some errands around the city. The company manager offered to drive her anywhere she had to go. No. She insisted the theatre rent her a car so she could drive herself. A luxury car was provided and Betty got lost running her errands. She abandoned the rental car somewhere and hailed a taxi back to the theatre. Betty couldn’t tell the company manager where she left the car.
Remember: that all happened before I ever got to meet Betty.
When I unpacked A Bunch of Stuff Happened, a pair of rhinestone eyeglasses was missing. They were very specific to the show –cool and funky. I passed this alarming information off to the powers that be. The producers automatically assumed someone stole them.
Everyone was terrified of how Betty would react. Betty loved those glasses.
A picture of the glasses was faxed to me from the producers. I was given a credit card and one afternoon to find another pair of those rhinestone glasses locally or heads would roll!
I tore through the city looking for those glasses like a bat out of hell, and at the zero hour, I scampered back the theatre with an exact pair of eyeglasses.
The news of the missing glasses had leaked to Betty while I was gone. She wasn’t happy and had already decided I would certainly fail at my mission and ruin her play. I was escorted to the stage by a slew of her people with the rhinestone eyeglasses in my hand. It was the first time I ever set eyes on the woman.
“Betty, this is Dennis Milam. He will be your dresser for A Bunch of Stuff Happened. He went shopping and found you an identical pair of your favorite eyeglasses.”
Betty shook my hand and skeptically took the glasses from the case.
“We’ll see about that,” she said.
I was scared to death.
Her face lit up. Betty was amazed. She thanked me whole-heartedly and I was quickly escorted off the stage and out of her sight.
I didn’t have much to do with Betty during the run of her play. She just had one costume and her personal stage manager was the only one trusted to set all her accessories and props onstage. I was instructed to be accessible to Betty at all times, but never to speak to her or look at her unless she initiated.
There was one thing I did for Betty every show. She couldn’t remember how to get from her dressing room to the stage. At places call, I would silently walk her to stage right, and meet her after the show and walk her back to her dressing room. The only time Betty ever spoke to me was to offer a compliment.
“I like your tennis shoes,” she said to me before one Saturday matinee. I thanked her. That was it.
Betty tipped me one hundred dollars on closing night via her assistant. No goodbye. No thank you. I must admit, Betty’s show was an amazing piece of theatre, but I was left feeling cold working on A Bunch of Stuff Happened.
Now Lynn Redgrave’s Shakespeare for My Father was a whole different vibe. The play was autobiographical, telling about her relationship with her late father, acclaimed actor Sir Michael Redgrave. Lynn had already done the play on Broadway and it earned her a Tony nomination, losing the award to Madeline Kahn. She already had a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination under her belt (and would go on to a few more).
I remembered watching Lynn Redgrave with my mother on the television show, House Calls. I was in awe.
The only demands Lynn Redgrave had when she did her show at my theatre was a telephone in her dressing room and a extra cot for her apartment when her daughter came to visit. For four weeks, she lived in the first apartment Betty rejected. She walked freely around the city. A friend of mine who worked at a photo mat was thrilled to meet her when she delivered and picked up her pictures simply using her own name: Lynn Redgrave.
I didn’t really have to do much for Lynn –just take her dry cleaning in every Monday. She would show up to work, do her show, and leave. She always said hello and goodbye to me and always asked if I needed anything before she went to the grocery store up the street.
Shakespeare for My Father was a bit hit. On closing night, Lynn gave a curtain speech and thanked each and every member of the backstage crew by name and told the audience what they did: John the light board operator, Mark the sound board operator, Lesley the stage manager, JR the assistant stage manager and Dennis the dresser.
Lynn Redgrave also tipped me one hundred dollars on closing night.
I made and presented her with a Shakespeare for My Father doll with her signature red hair and a copy of her show costume. She was thrilled and had the company manager take our picture with her camera. A month after the show closed, she mailed me a copy of the picture.
Betty and Lynn were in the exact same dressing room at the theatre but they couldn’t have been any more different. I wish they could have met each other.
I found Betty’s original rhinestone eyeglasses when I packed A Bunch of Stuff Happened up after the show closed. They had slid into a pocket of the suitcase and I missed them weeks earlier. I thought about keeping them for myself but I returned them to the producers. They were just another costume to me.
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 the fifth in a series of essays for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.