I did a play with a seventeen word title: Catherine: Concerning the Fateful Origins of Her Grandeur, with Diverse Musical Interludes, Three Elephants and No Ballet.
Backstage, we simply called it “Catherine.”
The script had two actresses playing Catherine the Great: Old Catherine (fifty-something) and Young Catherine (in flashback scenes to twenty-something). The play ended with Young Catherine slowly putting the crown jewels of Russia on her own head amidst lots of pomp and circumstance. The play stank and we all knew it. The replica of “the crown jewels of Russia” was the best thing in the play.
This play, Catherine, had a large cast with lots of bold personalities. There was friction in the women’s dressing room from day one: an ongoing divide between the younger set and the older set. It boiled over one Sunday matinee when a forty-something actress called the actress playing Young Catherine a cunt.
“Did she just say what I thought she said,” my fellow dresser asked.
“Yeah, Linda called her a cunt,” I whispered.
Linda was a handful, but I rather liked her. She was in previous season’s production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. She also appeared in one of those Chucky movies about the red-headed serial killer doll.
Hearing the C-word in the women’s dressing room was shocking. It happened fast and the room fell silent. I wasn’t privy to what sparked such a dramatic clash between the two actresses but it must have been serious.
“What do we do?” the other dresser asked.
“Oh, I think it’s best we let them work it out among themselves.”
It was a very bad afternoon.
A very long afternoon.
Young Catherine quickly disappeared after that matinee. The other dresser and I looked all over for her. We gave up the hunt and took our dinner break. Within a few minutes, I was sitting alone in a pizza joint a few blocks from the theatre. A stream of consciousness (or cunt-sciousness) littered my head while I ate.
…of all the shows I’ve done, I never heard the word “cunt” at the theatre …”cunt” in a serious, malicious way …I can’t think of a play that uses the word …I’ve done lots of plays with the N-word, but not really the C-word …people, in general, are pretty nice to each other backstage …at least civil …we might playfully use the word ‘cunt’ in private …it’s kind of a gay thing …but to actually hear a woman call another woman the C-word is a big deal …it scares me…
I wasn’t enjoying my pizza –not very hungry. Too curious to see what was going to happen that evening when I went back to work.
…Catherine the Cunt …Cunterine …Cunterine the Great …Linda’s about twenty years older than young Catherine …and fifty pounds heavier …Young Catherine …that’s what it says in the script …young …young …young … AND Catherine is the title role …Linda’s just sittin’ around in the background …oh, boy …women really don’t like the word, cunt …and Linda went there …ohhhhh, she really went there …is the dressing room going to turn into the set of Dynasty? …Krystle and Alexis …I think Linda would play Alexis and YOUNG Catherine would play Krystle Carrington …my money’s on Linda …Linda would snap YOUNG Catherine in HALF…
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I see Young Catherine pass by my window at the pizza place …and she’s wearing her Catherine the Great wig. A strange sight: the18th century wig and a 1990’s sundress.
…what the fuck is she thinking? …professional actors don’t leave the theater in their costume or wig …it’s a real cunty thing to do.
I finished my pizza as fast as I could and went outside. Young Catherine the Great was just walking down the street like a normal housewife. Her trail led me to the grocery store, but I lost her in frozen foods.
Maybe she’s at the post office.
She might be getting a sandwich at Subway.
Perhaps a burger at McDonalds’s …wearing her fucking 18th century wig!!!!.
I stopped one of the other actors on the street.
“Did you see her?”
“Yeah, I just saw her at the drug store. She’s still got her wig on and she looks crazy. I think she really thinks she’s a queen or something.”
I’ll show her QUEEN!
The actress was in the makeup aisle of the drug store. My first instinct was to grab her and start screaming at her. But she looked broken and sad.
It made me sad.
I decided to wait and talk to her privately back at the theater.
Young Catherine came to me later in my office. Her face was grey. It didn’t make much sense to take her wig off and turn around and put it back on a few minutes later. I tidied her coiffure on her head with a comb.
“Hey, you know, it’s really not a good idea to wear your wig outside the theater,” I said gently.
“Yeah, I know. I forgot,” she mumbled.
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“I am not a cunt.”
“I know you’re not,” I said and gave her a hug. It was hard to tell what the poor girl was thinking.
The rivals never spoke again. And no one ever mentioned what happened that afternoon. It was like it never happened.
My best friend struggled to sit through Catherine: Concerning the Fateful Origins of Her Grandeur, with Diverse Musical Interludes, Three Elephants and No Ballet. It was a good thing it was a comp ticket. All he could talk about afterwards was Catherine placing the crown jewels of Russia on her head at the end of the play. He’s a sucker for pomp and circumstance.
“Where did you get that crown?” he asked.
“It was made just for the show.”
“I want it,” he joked.
I’ll admit it.
How often does one get to say, “I stole the crown jewels of Russia”? It’s not like the theatre would ever need it again. I wrapped the rhinestone crown up in the finest wrapping paper and gave it to my best friend for Christmas.
“It was the best part of the play,” he said on Christmas morning. “Now I just need the wig!”
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.