It was the final Saturday matinee, about forty-five minutes before Joe Keller shoots himself in the head. Arthur Miller’s drama All My Sons was going smoothly backstage when I got a text message from my friend, Nancy. She was a block away doing laundry for the ballet version of A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.
“Sorry to hear (Eschew) Theatre is shutting down tomorrow. Are you going to be ok?” the text read.
For this essay, I’ll call my employer of twenty years “Eschew.”
I quickly checked Facebook. It was true: the bad news had leaked to the press and was all over social media. Within seconds, I got a second text from another friend.
“Hey, are you alright? I just read about the news about Eschew.”
The silenced phone in my pocket vibrated text after text after text while I continued dressing the actors for All My Sons. I wasn’t surprised by the news, but I was really pissed off to get the news so impersonally. The rest of the crew and even the actors were also getting texts about the nearly bankrupt Eschew Theatre Company.
The production manager and a few administrative people had been backstage the entire matinee with pensive looks on their faces. Odd. They mostly whispered and kept to themselves that afternoon. Now I knew why.
“We already know the theatre is shutting down,” I told my boss. “It’s all over Facebook.”
His face twisted.
People from administration swooped in and started explaining and apologizing. The matinee of All My Sons was still going on. Their intention was to tell us after the show, but it was too late.
Joe Keller finally killed himself and the performance was over. There was another All My Sons at 8pm that evening. When the show closed, about three-dozen people would be unemployed. It was an Arthur Miller play within an Arthur Miller play: Death of a Theatre.
Truthfully, I had been waiting for Eschew Theatre to finally put itself out of its misery for over a year. There were theories on how and when flying around the community for even longer. Finger pointing became a favorite thespian sport.
Who’s to blame?
All My Sons was my 121st production at this theatre. I had done more shows at Eschew than any person on the planet. Five years later, I still get asked what made the forty-year old Tony Award-winning regional theatre crumble?
My answer is – I don’t know. I’m just a dresser.
What I can share is what I saw and what I felt.
I remember a period when the stage door code was repeatedly changed in the middle of the day with no warning. That always meant that someone just got fired and had been escorted out of the building. Imagine coming back from your break and being spontaneously locked out of the building three or four times a month.
“Who is it this time?”
I felt curious.
Lots of mid-level staff members eschewed and left the theatre after all those firings. We had a few good years and won the regional theatre Tony Award. Expectations got bigger, but the money didn’t.
I felt scared.
The long-time managing director and artistic director would eventually eschew, too, in close succession.
I felt angry.
People weren’t always replaced in a timely manner, if they were replaced at all. An interim here, a few job-title-shifts there: or, “can we just do without that position?” I didn’t have a real full-time boss for almost a year. The staff had no relationship with the board of directors. Maybe they should have, because we were not being heard.
What was left was a staff of people with nowhere else to go.
Smiles became rare at Eschew Theatre.
I felt depressed.
“Does anyone want to work here?”
“Do I want to work here?”
I don’t begin to know how to balance a theatre’s budget. That’s not the job of a dresser. But I knew enough to know it shouldn’t be a race to get the company credit cards before anyone else when (and if) there’s a new balance available to spend.
The last couple of years, petty cash got petty. It took longer and longer to get, and the amount doled out got smaller and smaller. The staff started spending their own money while waiting for petty cash reimbursements. Big mistake. But there were still some passionate (dazed) artists that wanted to do their jobs. By the time we got to All My Sons, funds were scarce. Even I, the dresser, felt pinched.
I ran out of detergent and refused to spend any more of my own money. In my head, I was tapping my toes, holding the theatre hostage over laundry.
Get me some money for detergent today –or tonight YOU can explain to the actors why their costumes are still dirty.
I waited with arms akimbo for management to find the ten bucks for me to get a box of Tide.
Every reputable dry cleaner in town eventually refused service to Eschew Theatre. We kept opening accounts at new dry cleaners hoping to find a way to pay our old bills and our new bill.
When the light bulb in my sewing machine burnt out, I didn’t even ask for money to replace it. For weeks, I just repaired costumes in the dark.
The climax was getting a letter offering me a payment plan to COBRA my health insurance –odd since I was working full time. My theatre had long stopped paying the staff’s IATSE union benefits and didn’t tell us. (Denial. Sounds familiar, no?)
There was a company meeting a few days after the trigger was pulled. Attendance was certainly optional since the theatre had officially died. However, many people attended for information and closure.
Before the testimony began, I heard the new, newer, NEWEST board president say to someone, “If All My Sons had just sold more tickets, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The room was very raw. Like the Keller family in All My Sons, the staff of Eschew Theatre was a broken family. There was outrage and tears at that meeting. A fine company of people was about to fracture and go their separate ways. I honestly didn’t know if that was bad or good.
Death of a Theatre.
For weeks afterwards, people asked me if I was going to be okay.
I felt …acceptance.
But, to quote Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid.”
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.