After many years, my career shifted from dressing intimate plays to dressing big-budget musicals. There were eleven dressers on this production of Beauty and the Beast: three of us assigned to the men’s ensemble. The actors playing the spoon and the rug were Broadway chorus boys working out of town. I accidentally ran into them at the gay bars and we quickly friended each other on Facebook. About midway through the run of the show, I was on my hands and knees assisting Mr. Spoon with his shoes when he grabbed the back of my head and shoved it into his crotch.
For a split second I was angry, but I said nothing. A wig person was right there and saw the whole thing.
Was I just sexually harassed …by a spoon?
Isn’t this a Disney production?
Was it a coincidence that Mr. Rug grabbed my chest and squeezed my nipples later that same night? After doing hundreds of plays for regional theatres, I was being sexually harassed for the very first time while working on one of the most family-friendly musicals.
Spoon and Rug were buddies and had trouble keeping their hands to themselves. Multiple times a day, they grabbed, poked, pinched, and slapped me on my chest, ass, and crotch. Me and the other two male dressers were middle aged. Spoon and Rug were both twenty-something. I never saw the other two dressers being physically abused, but as more time went on, there was verbal abuse.
“Which one of our daddy dressers do you think has the biggest cock?”
“Ron. Ron probably has a big juicy one. I bet it tastes good.”
I suspected that the whole men’s chorus dressing room heard the exchange but said nothing. Dresser Ron was standing right there, but didn’t flinch. I pretended not to hear it. Sexual harassment had become a sport and the dressing room was a nasty high school locker room. I love blue humor. I’m no angel and can take being teased. But my experience doing Beauty and the Beast left me wildly conflicted.
I continued to see Spoon and Rug at the gay bars. We had fun, but they never grabbed or touched me there: only at work. In fact, our conversation was pretty tame in the clubs. Getting groped would have been forgivable and easier to justify if it happened during a drunken night out. It was clear their behavior had nothing to do with sex.
One of my old supervisors described me as “a pleaser.” I would agree with that and take it as a compliment. The relationship between actor and dresser is important and often complicated. I wanted to please all the actors, including them. But I was distracted by all the inappropriate touching. I lost my vocabulary. For weeks, I couldn’t even say it was happening to me, let alone tell them to stop.
What if these guys, who I considered “work friends”, hated me for confronting them? Spoon and Rug might unfriend me on Facebook. They might ignore me out at the gay bars.
I was afraid someone would say that I should take them up on their advances. Have sex with them. After all, they were attractive young gay men and I was an old, fat gay man. Aren’t all gay men sex-starved whores?
I was also afraid I had done or said something to provoke Spoon and Rug while dressing them. Maybe my sassy mouth went to far and I deserved to be objectified. I didn’t want Disney or the theatre to get involved and twist my words.
What if no one believed me? What if they call me a histrionic liar?
Finally, I spoke to one of my good friends and fellow dressers on Beauty and the Beast: the principal dresser for Belle. She suggested I tell the wardrobe head. The wardrobe head gave me a hug and offered to talk to the guys, but suggested I talk to my union rep. The union rep said I was too good looking for my own good, and suggested I talk to company manager. The company manager took several days to return my phone call.
All of these people were women.
They were sympathetic, but said the same thing in so many words.
Sexual harassment is especially prevalent in musical theatre. Women deal with it all the time and now it was my turn as a man. This particular venue had just had a mandatory sexual harassment training session a few shows ago. But all of those actors and staff people were long gone. As the victim, I did have a few options. But each option had consequences. Nothing I didn’t already know, but now it was happening to me.
I spoke to an attorney who dealt with these matters. She was horrified and even called Spoon and Rug horrible names to try and make me feel better. That made me sad.
The legal ramifications she outlined made me sadder.
It boiled down to me.
“GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF OF ME,” I said loud enough so the other actors and techs could hear me.
“I’M NOT JOKING.”
Years later, I can laugh at the thought of me snapping back at two grown men dressed as a spoon and as a rug. I was loud, but I just wish they had heard me. Beauty and the Beast closed and everyone left town. I got no relief and no justice.
More commercial musicals would come my way. I’m more of a target now than I was in my younger years.
An eighteenth century French student liked to play with my beard and say naughty things to me while I tied his cravat.
There was also a jolly tap dancing sailor who inappropriately messaged me online: “Wanna fuck later?”
A 1950’s jazz musician rubbed his ass on my crotch and tried to sit on my lap without invitation.
I’ll never forget the sword fighting ninja who grabbed my ass.
My downtrodden female thespians were right. In my late forties, it was my turn.
None of this made me feel sexy or better about myself.
That’s showbiz, I guess.
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.