George, Martha, Pete & Steve

Sometimes, when working on a live theatre production, the problems don’t originate from what’s going on onstage. They start with the audience.

A patron at Brian Friel’s Faith Healer didn’t appreciate the playwright’s monotonous monologues. It was opening night: a man stood up in the dark and yelled at the audience seated around him, “I don’t see how you assholes can watch this shit!” He stormed out of the theater fifteen minutes into the play.

It almost came to blows when someone in the second row answered her cell phone and carried on a lengthy conversation during the cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. She was easy to spot in her bright yellow dress. After curtain call, the actor who played Dr. Gibbs dashed to the lobby in full costume and gave her a piece of his mind.

“Madame! Madame! If you can’t leave your cell phone at home, then YOU should stay home!”

I did a production of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in a small, intimate theater. We did a performance on the night of Halloween. Two patrons were seated in the front row dressed as clowns: big shoes, big wigs and red noses. The show started and the cast lost control with the giggles. The performance would have come to a screeching halt had the house manager not asked the clowns to move to the back of the theatre.

And then there is George and Martha.

Edward Albee’s violently candid play and movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of my favorites. I was thrilled to get to work on the show, despite the fact there isn’t much for the dresser to do during the three hour play. Not to be missed, I used one of my vacation days and took a handsome man to see the show with me. It was our first date, and there was no way of knowing the evening would become so eventful.

The show began with the entrance of George and Martha. I was all set to enjoy the play when, out of nowhere, I heard a strange echo coming from somewhere near the stage.

“What a dump?”

“What a dump?”

“Hey, what’s that from?”

“Hey, what’s that from?”

Martha and George flinched from their echo but kept the things going. I looked around and spied a young man in the third row opening a can of beer and sipping from it. His companion in the seat next to him was doing the same thing. They were sharing a bag of chips and had their legs up on the seats in front of them.

How could they not know basic theatre etiquette?

Martha continued the verbal sparring with her husband, George, and it happened again. Perhaps something was wrong with the theater’s sound system? Yet I knew the actors were not wearing body microphones. And it wasn’t all the dialogue that caught the echo: just certain phrases.

“I swear if you existed, I would divorce you…”

“I swear if you existed, I would divorce you…”

“Yeah? Well, I’ll start in on the kid if I want to…”

“Yeah? Well, I’ll start in on the kid if I want to…”

After a while, it was obvious that one of the beer-drinking guys in the third row was saying Martha’s lines along with Martha. The other beer-drinking guy was answering Martha, saying George’s lines along with George.

“I’d advise against it, Martha…”

“I’d advise against it, Martha…”

The two patrons knew every line in the play (so did I) and were having the time of their lives repeating them along with the actors. I almost expected the men to get up on stage and do the blocking. The actors, as well as the patrons, were stunned by the interactions of the two guys. They thought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was being done in the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Tickets for this show were not cheap. Some people in the theater were upset, while others found it amusing. I thought it was a hoot, but my date was very turned off (strike one against the handsome man who I brought with me to see one of my favorite plays).

Knowing there would be a lot of discussion about the incident in the dressing room, I went backstage at intermission, dragging my date along with me. The actress playing Martha was a solid performer. She already had a long, successful acting career by that point, but she was quite shaken when she got offstage. She didn’t feel comfortable finishing the play with the two boozing patrons a few feet away from the stage. I knew the guys were probably harmless, but to be fair, Martha probably didn’t. And who needs to perform an Edward Albee play with a couple of parrots?

Back in the lobby, I saw the house manager and stage manager talking to the young guys. The men were obviously boyfriends and explained that they were big fans of the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and watched it on their VCR all the time. They confessed that they had never been to a live play and were quite excited. Yet, they assumed our stage was like a movie theater or a stadium and it was acceptable to drink and talk in the auditorium.

“It’s like the gay Super Bowl,” one of them said with a tipsy slur. “It just wouldn’t feel right to watch George and Martha without liquor.”

I understood where the guys were coming from: the play is a game of offense and defense and Martha’s quite the quarterback. These two enthusiastic players were just as good as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

My date was had a sour look on his face. He pulled me close and whispered to me as the intermission chimes rang, “Why are the characters in this play so mean to each other?” He obviously didn’t get that Albee’s masterpiece was iconic in our gay culture. I got the feeling he was expecting an evening of Neil Simon (strike two against my handsome date).

The super-fans surrendered their beer without incident and were reseated behind us in the back of the theater for the rest of the play. They were told to be quiet or they would be asked to leave. The rest of the performance went off without a hitch, but by curtain call my date had turned white as a ghost.

“Was that supposed to be enjoyable,” he said of the play stark and shrill tone (strike three, Handsome).

Mr. Handsome bailed on me quickly after the show with a timid goodbye kiss. I knew I would never see him again and I didn’t care.

It was good to get back to work the next day …right where I belonged. I caught myself saying Martha’s lines along with the monitor in my office.

“What a dump?’ What’s that from?”

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.

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