I lost sixty pounds using Jenny Craig’s weight loss program. It felt great to be down four pants sizes. The cast of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes took notice of their more svelte dresser.
“Dennis, you look great. How did you do it?”
“Jenny Craig,” I answered.
“What’s your secret?” someone else asked.
“I did Jenny Craig,” I said again.
“Was it hard to lose the weight?”
“No, I went to Jenny Craig,” I announced over and over and over.
While lacing the corset for the actress playing Birdie Hubbard, something in her snapped.
“I need to lose sixty pounds, myself. I’m gonna try Jenny Craig,” she told the whole women’s dressing room. This Tony-nominated actress was a pro. I had worked with her several times before, and always found her to be delightful. But she was (what those of us in the business would call) a bit method.
Method acting refers to the controversial teaching of Constantin Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg. Simply put, a method actor lives the part rather than merely acts the part. I had been with this actress show after show for the last decade: Tony Kushner, Brian Friel, Alfred Uhry, and Thornton Wilder. I learned to roll with it and let her do her work however she needed to do it.
The character of Bertie Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes is a troubled soul. She’s a vapid alcoholic who has lost control of her life. In one scene, her husband violently slaps her face. Later in the play, she suffers a humiliating breakdown. In the beginning of the run, the actress was her usual, method acting self: melancholy and glassy-eyed, not unlike Bertie. She was also a bit heavier and more vulnerable than I had seen her over the years.
“Which Jenny Craig did you go to,” she asked me.
“The one on First Avenue downtown.”
“I’ll stop by there tomorrow.”
Bertie was very excited to see me the next day. She had, indeed, signed up for Jenny Craig’s weight loss program. She listed off all of the food she bought.
“I got a few Sunshine Sandwiches, a breakfast burrito, some of Jenny’s Personal Pan Pizza, and a lemon cake. I can’t wait to try the Pasta Ole! Oh, have you tried their vitamin bars? Are they as good as they look on the box?”
All the food was familiar to me. I had experienced the same kind of excitement months earlier, so I encouraged her. We dished about the meals, but the other women in the cast were concerned. Her behavior was suspicious. She talked non-stop about Jenny Craig and was already suggesting I alter her costumes to a size smaller.
“Let’s wait a few weeks and see how much weight you lose,” I countered.
Every night, in the later half of the play, Bertie would heat up her frozen Jenny Craig meal in the microwave and eat it in the dressing room. We all got to hear a review of each and every Jenny Craig dish she tried, bite by bite.
“The cheese ravioli is good, but the broccoli-stuffed baked potato I had for lunch was horrible. Did you like it, Dennis?”
“No. The broccoli-stuffed potato wasn’t my favorite.”
Everything had changed once I introduced Bertie to Jenny Craig. Where did my method actress go? She had become a method Jenny Craig-er. She was living Jenny Craig. Typically, she would have been lost in her character, not her food. Was she trying to lose more than just weight? What the Hell was going on?
One evening, I decided to check out Bertie Hubbard’s breakdown scene from backstage. It was one of my favorite moments in the play. By that point, the character had been drinking heavily and finally had the courage to speak her mind. She admits to herself that her husband only married her for her money and that she doesn’t love her own son. The work was breathtaking. Bertie sobbed and the audience was captivated by her awesome performance. I started to sob, too. Watching her act was inspiring.
That’s my girl!
The actress slowly and painfully finished her scene and crossed the stage to exit. She walked in character towards me in the wings; fragile and hunched over as if she could die at any moment from a broken heart. I grabbed a box of tissues from the stage manager, expecting the actress to need a little TLC once she got offstage.
The instant Bertie was out of the audience’s view, she popped up straight. There were no more tears. Erect and beaming with enthusiasm, she looked right at me.
“Chicken mesquite! CHICKEN MESQUITE!” she intensely proclaimed. Her southern accent was gone. She was trembling with excitement and her eyes were wild.
Bertie Hubbard ran as fast as she could to the green room to heat up her Jenny Craig dinner in the microwave. Method acting had been thrown out the window. Less than nine minutes after completing her gut-wrenching moment onstage in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (four minutes for travel and five to microwave) the actress was eating a small piece of mesquite chicken with a side of broccoli at her dressing station. Always the professional, she wore a smock over her Victorian drag to dine.
“I love-love-love the mesquite chicken,” she told me. “I’ve been thinking about it all day. I’m obsessed with the meatloaf dinner, too. The sauce and little potatoes are divine! Which do you like better, Dennis?”
She always made me laugh. I don’t know what was going on in this woman’s head, onstage or off, but I loved her more than ever. She could do no wrong.
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.