The artistic director wanted to do Edward Albee’s latest Off Broadway play, Three Tall Women. He put Albee’s other sensation, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in the current season and went to battle with another local artistic director to be the first company in town to produce this new Pulitzer Prize-winning play. He wined and dined the crotchety playwright.
“Thanksgiving with Edward Albee? God help me,” I heard him say more than once.
It worked. I was very excited when I found out we were doing the play.
Three Tall Women has been called more of an exorcism than a play. Three actresses play the same woman (Albee’s mother?) at different stages of her life: young lady, middle aged, and on her deathbed.
Albee had final approval of our casting. Nan Martin was sixty-seven years old at the time and had already done the role in other cities, winning a few awards for her stellar performance. She would be playing the ninety-year old character again.
When I saw a run-through of our production in the rehearsal hall, I was overwhelmed. Three Tall Women instantly became my favorite Edward Albee play of all time. Nan Martin was amazing and seemed to carry this vocally demanding role with terrifying precision.
As scared as I was of Nan at first, I grew to adore her and the stories of her long and successful career, which included starring in several mainstream films like Goodbye Columbus and The Other Side of the Mountain. What the diva seemed to be most proud of was her role as Amanda Krueger, Freddie Krueger’s mother, in the third installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. She took delight in telling us how that movie character had been accidentally locked in a mental institution and gang raped by the inmates, which is how the iconic Freddy Krueger was conceived.
“Bastard son of a hundred maniacs,” she would say with pride when telling the story. Of course, the crew of Three Tall Women held a Nan Martin film fest at my home to watch the film.
I fell in love with Nan Martin. She was a handful at times, but I truly loved this crazy old woman and all of her backstage antics.
Nan was a pro in every sense of the word, but she chain-smoked. Eight shows a week was tough on her voice, especially since she yelled a lot in the play. By the end of the week, I could see that Nan was raw.
There were no understudies for this production of Three Tall Women. The rationale was that it was cheaper to cancel a show if an actor was unable to go on than pay for actors to cover all the roles for the entire run (it was only a four hundred-seat theater).
The problem was most actors felt a great loyalty to go on every show no matter what and not disappoint the patrons no matter what. It always felt unfair to me to gamble on the health on the performers. One weekend during Three Tall Women, Nan felt that way, too.
It was the first Saturday matinee after opening night, an hour before the places call. Nan came up to me with her boney hand around her neck. I could barely hear her speak.
“Dennis, my voice. My voice,” she said in an intense whisper.
The stage manager did an assessment. There was no way Nan had enough voice to do the role. Phone calls were made and the matinee and evening shows were canceled. Nan was sent home to rest.
The crew all thought we would get the day off, too. However, we (myself included) were forced by management to stand out in front of the theater and greet the patrons arriving to see Three Tall Women and explain to them there was no show that afternoon. None of us techies were dressed appropriately or accustomed to greeting the public.
People were furious that the performance had been canceled. They had fought for tickets of this sold out show, gotten all dressed up, and paid for parking. There was a lot of yelling at the box office.
“Why doesn’t this theatre have understudies???” I was asked repeatedly.
I told Nan the story when she came back to the theatre for the Sunday matinee. She was angry, too. Nan loved her crew and thought it was unfair to make the backstage folks deal with the public. I could see an evil twinkle in her eye.
At an hour before places call that day, Nan came to me clutching her throat again. It was a rerun of yesterday.
The stage manager came to talk to our diva, and Nan did the same routine about losing her voice. This time, however, the stage manager was instructed to mic Nan so we wouldn’t have to cancel the show again.
I was given a small body microphone by the sound guy and told to place it under her wig.
Nan Martin was pissed. She obviously thought that she was going to get the day off again – and perhaps force the theatre to get her an understudy.
I got Nan ready and ran to the stage manager’s booth to watch as the curtain came up on this performance.
The show started. I could tell by the look on Nan’s face that she was not going to play nice. Nan was sitting onstage with the tiny microphone in her wig planted only a few inches from her mouth. She was moving her lips but not a sound could be heard from her. The other two actresses could be heard fine and were just rolling with Nan’s shenanigans.
“Turn the mic up!” the stage manager told the sound guy.
“I’ve got it up all the way!”
Nan was mouthing her lines, but she wasn’t even trying to legitimately speak. She wanted to win the battle and go home.
The middle-tall-woman did her usual blocking and approached Nan in her chair. She leaned over to help Nan get up just like they always did in the play. The middle-tall-woman was saying all her lines as she normally does … without realizing her mouth was two inches away from the microphone in Nan’s wig! A huge blast of her voice rang through the auditorium making the audience jump in their seats and cover their ears.
“Turn it down! Turn the mic down! Drop the curtain! Drop the curtain! We’ve got to cancel the show,” the stage manager said only five minutes into the performance.
I ran back backstage to help Nan get undressed and take her mic off. She made me drive her home so I wouldn’t have to talk to any more angry patrons.
I had no idea what was in store on Tuesday when I got to the theatre. Now there were four tall women.
The artistic director had found another actress on the other side of the country who had also done the elder role in Three Tall Women before. There had been some hard negotiations because she didn’t want to come to town and merely understudy Nan as the ninety-year old woman. This new actress wanted a guaranteed number of performances to play the role again. My boss handed me a calendar of who would be performing on what night for the remaining shows.
There was a big problem – old woman #2 must have come from a production of Three Short Women because she was three inches shorter than Nan Martin. And her feet were smaller, too. I bought #2 the highest heels she could walk in.
The rest of the run of this show was quiet. We had all been through so much already. I just spent a lot of time hemming and letting down all of Nan Martin’s costumes for the revolving ninety-year old women.
Thankfully, Nan got to do the final performance of the show. She wrapped her spindly arms around me on her way out of the theatre and gave me a big kiss goodbye. The diva reeked of cigarettes.
Nan Martin died in 2010, but I still see her in some of my favorite movies and television shows. I love seeing her face. I’m still one of her biggest fans.
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.