It’s the job of a theatrical dresser to make sure the actors get dressed in the correct costume at the correct time. Let me go on the record as saying that there’s only so much a dresser can do. Unless you’re working for a big-budget theatre, the dresser-to-actor ratio is far apart. Things can sneak past even the most watchful eye.
Unscripted nudity on stage:
The leading lady in Elf – The Musical forget to put her on skirt for a scene. She went ice-skating in her blazer, her hat, her skates and her pantyhose.
One of the actresses in From the Mississippi Delta forgot to put her underwear on before a revealing birthing scene –her crotch faced the audience. Talk about crowning.
Same thing happened in Bye, Bye Birdie. Rose Alvarez was spinning and twirling around the stage in her full 1950’s circle skirt during “Put on a Happy Face” …naked from the waist down.
Which brings me to La Belle Helene: a French operetta by Jacques Offenbach that depicts the elopement of Helen of Sparta and Prince Paris. Their love affair sets off the Trojan War.
Historically, there would be a lot of skin showing in the ancient Spartan heat: skimpy drapes over nude bodies and accessorized with sandals. However, we were doing the show in the deep south and the sight of a nipple would offend conservative theatre subscribers. The show’s producer quickly banned what he thought was “lewd nudity” coining the phrase, “No nipples!”
The solution to the nipple ban was to dress all the actors in tight, flesh-colored bodysuits. During preproduction, models were hired to stand while a costume craftsperson painted pubic hair and anatomically correct details on each and every suit, one nipple, one ab, one penis at a time. Only then could all the period-accurate drapes be worn over the detailed bodysuits. The costume designer went conservative with fabric, trying to sneak a few faux nipples into the operetta. Up close, the suits looked rather cartoony. However, once onstage for dress rehearsal with the lights, the bodysuits looked too realistic.
“I said NO NIPPLES!”
More fabric was added to the drapes for modesty. The show opened and the nipple issue was covered. At that point, I wondered why we still needed the bodysuits at all.
The actors loved the flesh-colored bodysuits. There was something freeing about running around naked, without being held accountable for being naked. I was told the bodysuits were quite comfortable and fun to wear without the Grecian drapes. Backstage turned into nude-but-not-nude nudist colonies. It suited the tone of La Belle Helene. The chorus would sing onstage:
“Come dance! Make love! Drink up! Have fun!”
I was jealous.
I wanted my own naked bodysuit.
During Act III of La Belle Helene, a high priest, covered head to toe in a long black hooded cape, arrives on a boat. He explained, in song, that he must take Helen away to sacrifice one hundred heifers. Helen refuses to leave until she realizes the priest is really her lover, Paris, in disguise. She would jump into the boat and the lovebirds would sail away to live happily ever after as the entire cast waved goodbye singing:
“They are on their way to the foreign land,
Even wives obey when kings command!”
It was a Grecian thing-of-beauty, and the conservative audiences could leave the theatre having been spared the sickening sight of any nipples or pubic hair. THE END.
What could possibly go wrong?
When Paris, disguised as a high priest, lumbered onstage for Act III in his boat, he was supposed to be wearing all of the following costume pieces:
A) His flesh colored bodysuit with the custom-painted anatomy
B) A manly, over-the-shoulder knee length drape
C) Knee-high sandals
D) A long black priest cape with hood
One night, Paris’s flesh colored bodysuit was a bit too comfortable. I happen to be standing in the wings watching:
The boat lumbers onstage with Paris, disguised as a priest.
He sang and dramatically flung off his long black cape revealing his true identity.
BUT HE WAS NAKED!
Well, not really naked. He had his nude bodysuit on, but forgot to put on his Grecian drape. The painted-on genitalia viewed under the stage lights proved quite vivid. Without the cape, and from a distance, he looked REALLY NAKED.
Up to that moment, everyone in the sold-out auditorium was lost in the love story of Helen of Sparta and Paris.
“Come dance! Make love! Drink up! Have fun!”
Paris sings to Helen:
“I am that shepherd who adores you. Your Paris, ardent and naïve.”
But it appeared Paris was a sexual deviant! He had disguised himself as a priest to flash Helen of Troy his penis! There were gasps. Gasps turned into laughter. A few members of the chorus had to leave the stage with the giggles. Paris had no idea he was onstage without his drape, his (faux) groin and ass displayed for all to see. Thankfully, the conductor kept conducting and the performance of La Belle Helene never hesitated for its stark naked leading man.
Confused, the actor continued singing,
“We’re off to sea. Too bad, Menelaus!
I’ve got your Helen! She now belongs to gay Paree!”
Helen of Sparta picked the priest cloak up off the bottom of the boat. She fumbled with it a minute, then threw it over her lover, Paris (who just figured out what was going on). THE END.
After the curtain call of this memorable performance of La Belle Helene, the actors quickly exited the stage to the wings and collapsed to the floor in utter hysterics. The actor who played Paris was red in the face.
“Dude, what the fuck happened to your costume?” the stage manager asked.
“I was reading the New York Times. I guess I just forgot to get dressed,” he said.
Unscripted nudity on stage …I think not. After all, he wasn’t really naked. And the rule was no nipples. The producer didn’t say anything about penis.
No doubt the incident traumatizes the conservative southern subscribers. It traumatized me. Shit happens, I suppose.
The score in ancient Sparta: Actor 1 – Dresser 0
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.