1 script, The Diary of Anne Frank
1 imaginative theatre director
1 set designer with restraint
1 costume designer, overzealous
8 actors with a sense of humor
1 lighting designer
1 cynical and jaded dresser
Several yards of black duvetyne fabric
Darkest black hoodie and gloves
Several Star of Davids
Mix script with director until it’s conceptual. Add set designer. Continue stirring until a set appears that has no walls or closets. Vigorously whip in costume designer until there are an ample number of costumes (too many). Spread the mix over the 8 actors onstage.
The actors will NOT leave the stage during the play, yet they will still need to change numerous costumes on the set with no walls or closets. Fold in lighting designer to shade actors while undressed.
Next, add cynical and jaded dresser.
This is where I come in.
The Frank’s, the Van Daam’s, and Mr. Dussel arrive at the secret annex in Amsterdam to hide from the Nazis with only a few pieces of discreet luggage and the clothes on their backs.
So you think.
The Jews in this recipe of The Diary of Anne Frank have many costume changes yet never leave the stage. So how does a dresser hide all those sweaters, skirts, blouses, pants, dresses, shoes and custom knitted booties if the attic has no closet and no walls?
The answer is …anywhere a dresser can get away with it.
I found a way to hide over fifty costume pieces that could discreetly be found by the actors on cue: behind posts, on the back of chairs, under beds, in the kitchen stove. The Nazis eventually find the Jews at the end of The Diary of Anne Frank …but I would challenge them to find Mr. Dussel’s sweater, or Margo’s Act Two skirt.
Once I successfully hid all the clothes on the wall-less set for my production of The Diary of Anne Frank, there was another problem: what happens to all the clothes that the actors take off? Costumes come off, costumes go on, but where do the discards go? There was no time and place for them to be hung back up. Remember, the Jews never leave the attic set. The old clothes couldn’t live on the floor until the show was over. The audience would see them and the actors would trip over them when the lights come up. It was a good thing the whole set was raised and raked on a platform four feet off the ground.
Have the dresser tell the actors to toss costumes off the back of the set when they are done with them.
“What? Are you sure?”
Everyone thought I was nuts. How often so actors get told to throw or kick their costumes. But eventually, it became therapeutic. The actors loved it: some were carefree about it, while a few were more maniacal. Behind the scenes, it looked like they were carelessly hurling their clothes out the windows and onto the streets of Amsterdam. For the dresser, this was certainly not WARDROBE 101.
Next, create a moat on the stage floor that wraps around the back of the wall-less set with the several yards of black duvetyne fabric. This moat will keep the costumes from getting dirty.
“But what about Mr. and Mrs. Van Daam? They change costumes upstairs!”
Save remaining black duvetyne fabric to create a discreet black costume chute for the Van Daam’s to discard their clothes from their upstairs bedroom.
Mrs. Van Daam’s beloved fur coat made quite a thud when it hit the deck.
The costumes would pile up fast. My job was to sneak around in the darkness and get the discarded clothes behind the set as quickly as possible before they wrinkled. No need to create more work for myself.
“Dennis we can totally see you picking up clothes behind the set.”
Who would have guessed the audience in the back rows could see me on my hands and knees. Patrons on extreme house right and house left could see me, too.
Add darkest black hoodie and gloves to dresser.
The Diary of Anne Frank is a sad play, but halfway through the run, the actors were giddy as they turned discarding their costumes into a game. I was only a few feet below them on my hands and knees, so they skillfully catapulted their costume pieces on top of me in the dark. Points were being earned.
Ten points if they could hit me in the head.
Five points if they hit me on my back.
Two points for a limb.
The play had shifted from Hide and Seek from the Nazis, to backstage Jew Dodge Ball with the dresser. A shoe to the head really hurt.
After being intentionally pelted in the dark with vintage costumes for a few shows, I decided to take action. My be-gloved hand would reach up and tickle their feet and grab their ankles. Try changing pants if you can’t lift your foot off the ground. Who knew Mr. Dussel was so ticklish?
It was all in good fun. The audience never knew the shenanigans that went on during the long run of The Diary of Anne Frank. I bonded with the Franks, the Van Daams, and Mr. Dussel and could have even lived with them in their wall-less attic. They were hiding from the Nazis, and I was hiding from the audience.
The wall-less set grew on me, too. It felt universal –like we were hiding in plain sight. The fact that it was raised off the stage made it appear we were floating. Who needs closets and walls?
By the last week of the run, it really dawned on me that the characters were based on real people: as real as my life, my family’s lives, and the lives of my friends. It was the closest I ever felt to being inside the play I was working on. For the first time since middle school, I re-read Anne Frank’s diary.
Serve with an extra Star of David pinned to the dresser’s hoodie as a garnish.
Every performance of The Diary of Anne Frank would end as scripted with the violent knocking on the annex door offstage left followed by a painful lump in my throat. Dodge ball and tickling was over. Sure, I knew it was my fellow stagehands making Nazi-noises, but it still hurt knowing the offstage fate of my clotheshorse Jews.
I wasn’t as cynical and jaded as I thought I was.
The story had become personal.
Photograph by Chris Bennion
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.