I had the good fortune to do a play with one of America’s greatest living playwrights. This Tony-nominated writer was allegedly a party animal. He got drunk one night after rehearsal and stumbled back to his company housing to crawl into bed …only there was someone already in his bed …but it wasn’t his bed after all. He had let himself into the unlocked apartment next door to his by mistake. The playwright was in bed with his neighbor.
Mr. Party-Playwright left his upset neighbor behind and made his way to the hallway to pull the fire alarm. When help arrived, he was very flirty with the firemen, thinking they were there to start a fire, not put one out. He ended the evening by calling all of his great-American-playwright-friends and leaving them drunken voicemails.
I wasn’t with him that night, but that was the story going around the theater the next morning when a slew of America’s other greatest-living-playwrights started returning his drunk-dialed phone calls. Not a lot of rehearsing got done that day.
I still don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the story.
(Mr. Party-Playwright wasn’t Tony Kushner. But Mr. Kushner may or may not have been on the receiving end of a late night phone call. That rumor was never confirmed.)
Years later, I met the great American playwright Tony Kushner in my office while working on his latest play. The first hour of Homebody/Kabul was a monologue from a bored and emotional middle-aged Englishwoman. She spoke directly to the audience holding an outdated guidebook to Kabul in her hand. After the first of two much-needed intermissions, the audience comes back to realize the character had fled to Afghanistan and was missing. Her husband and daughter go to Kabul looking for her. The two meet all kinds of people and babble on and on and on for next two-plus hours only to learn the woman is dead.
The play was over three and a half hours long –this isn’t the longest play I ever run but it sometimes felt like it.
The actress playing the homebody had over two hours to kill between the end of her monologue (considering going to go to Kabul) and curtain call (dead in Kabul). The actress’s husband was in town visiting her throughout the run of Homebody/Kabul. He met her at the theater every night and took her to some of the nicest restaurants in our city. They would drink wine (and more wine) and the actress would return to the theater well after 11pm for curtain call a little shit-faced. I laughed. I fantasized about having a drink (or seven) to get through this Tony Kushner tome, myself.
Speaking of Tony Kushner and drinking: I watched Roy Cohn and the angel in Angels in America do a celebratory shot of whiskey (or three) in the dressing room every night after their last scene. They were a little tipsy at curtain call, too.
It certainly didn’t happen exclusively on the Tony Kushner plays I worked on. As the dresser, I’ve always seen a fair amount of alcohol use in professional theatre. It’s mostly harmless, but sometimes there are slips.
Mama in A Raisin in the Sun did a 10am student matinee still wasted from the night before (more than once, actually). When she slapped Beneatha for denouncing God, the elder actress recklessly slapped her too hard and made the young woman’s lip bleed heavily. I saw the exact-same thing happen during a Saturday night performance of Clifford Odet’s Paradise Lost –only it was an actor clobbering an actress. Not good.
I’ve worked with my share of backstage people under the influence, too. Of course, weed is everywhere. One theater I worked at had a spray booth for the prop department. Flip a switch and the ventilation system would flush the techie pot smoke right out of the building during the show (one could even leave their wireless head set on).
And then there’s the harder stuff. My dresser for All the King’s Men cashed his first paycheck the day before opening night. I found a bank envelope of several hundreds of dollars hidden under the microwave in my office (I’m still not sure why he put it under the microwave).
“Is this yours?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks,” he said sheepishly.
He behaved strangely all night. What I didn’t realize was he was jonesing. The man left the theater after the last preview and I never saw him again. Later we learned it was the beginning of a long meth binge. I liked this dresser. It was horrible for me to have to replace him …ON OPENING NIGHT.
My dresser on The Singing Forest was jonesing, too. He was irrational throughout the tech process and just walked out leaving his keys on my desk before first preview. We had worked together on several shows before and I adored him. I was the last to know he was spiraling downwards into addiction. He had pulled the same sort of behavior at other theaters around town, too, and nobody told me. The man was later barred from work in my dresser union.
There are several union dressers and stagehands I work with currently, who may or may not be altered on the job from day to day. One, in particular, is much easier to get along with if she’s has a few drinks before (or during) work. Why rock that boat? The union brotherhood and sisterhood in IATSE runs deep. A person has to reach an undeniable crisis before anyone gets too involved. Nobody likes a snitch.
I like to drink socially. A lot. I don’t want to judge anyone for drinking, but I’m wildly uncomfortable working next to someone who’s fucked up. It’s embarrassing and very dangerous to everyone.
I snapped while dressing the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. It was only my third production at this particular theatre, and I was working alongside a person who came to work flamboyantly drunk on a regular basis. All my fellow dressers (and the actors) knew it and had been turning a blind eye for years. I was shocked. Nobody was winning by allowing the behavior to go on and on and on.
I spoke up and the man was removed from that show. Reactions of the cast and crew were mixed. For a while, I was the enemy of those who knew I was the snitch, but I didn’t care. The show went on and that dresser completed rehab and remains sober.
Did I help the dresser or hurt the dresser?
Would I narc on an altered coworker again?
I probably wouldn’t –I’d be tattling on someone way too often. I feel strongly that I did the right thing, but I can’t police it alone. The issue is way bigger than me and I don’t see my industry taking a strong stance, so why should I.
Ironically, towards the end of the run of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, we held the overture for almost half an hour because one of the actors went missing on a meth binge. The actor’s excuse: he was he was held hostage by his druggie boyfriend. He wasn’t fired that evening, but he never got cast in a show at that theatre again. Today, the disgraced actor has long left town, but his kidnapper/ex-boyfriend got sober and is now a friend of mine.
To quote Broadway diva Elaine Stritch in Sondheim’s Company, “I’ll drink to that!”
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.