My roommate retired from theatre in 2001 to work for a gay porn magazine.
I was so jealous.
Being a dresser non-stop for fifteen years had worn me down. The art ceased to have any meaning for me. I blamed my career for all that was missing from my life. My dream was to quit show business and work in a grocery store.
I’m not a fan of Henrik Ibsen. And at the time, I was already quite depressed. His themes of duty, obsession, and how the past can fuck up your future are sure to push some buttons. Alas, it was the new millennium and I was doing my second Henrik Ibsen production within the last five years: The Lady From the Sea.
By opening night, I wanted to shoot myself in the head with a fancy old revolver, like Ibsen’s more popular character, Hedda Gabler. However, I was stuck with the less dangerous diva, Ellida Wangel. I settled for a nagging fantasy of hanging myself over my desk. My boss would find my dead body swinging in my office above my yellow legal pad with all the sewing repair notes from the night before.
I could see the newspaper headlines:
Backstage Suicide During Play
The bi-line would read something like:
Dresser Hangs Himself During Ibsen’s ‘The Lady From the Sea’
Surely you jest, Dennis.
Monday, September 10, 2001.
It was a much-needed day off from Ibsen. My roommate had baked a pie from scratch that evening to take to work and share with his fellow gay pornographers. I went to bed around 11pm to the lingering smell of cherry in our apartment. I was jealous of his pie, too.
Fucker. I would never bake a pie to take to MY work.
I hated my theatre. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it. They’re lucky their burnt-out dresser didn’t burn that fucking theatre to the ground.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, 9:15PST
The phone rang and woke me up. It was my pie-fucker roommate.
“Turn on the TV,” he said.
Shocking. I lived on the west coast so it was already over by the time I found out: the planes, the collapse, the Pentagon, Shanksville.
My theatre had a 7:30 Ibsen scheduled for that evening. There were many emails that morning. Many phone calls. Some group emails. We’re going to do the show. We’re NOT going to do the show. We ARE. We aren’t. We ARE. We aren’t.
Finally a decision: there would be no Ibsen that night.
My co-worker, Keith, called me late that afternoon.
“Are you watching?” he asked.
“Of course. I can’t stop watching.”
“Doesn’t the site in New York City look like our set for The Lady From the Sea?”
I took a closer look at the footage of what would later be referred to as “Ground Zero”. Keith was right. The scenic design for our Ibsen play had two massive steel columns leaning on each other that (perhaps) symbolized a ship and the sea. On the floor were hundreds of pieces of paper that (perhaps) symbolized waves. The stage was one big mess of skewed angles and forced perspective …just like the site of the World Trade Center after the attack. The similarity was chilling.
“They’re going to have to redesign the set,” Keith snapped and hung up the phone.
Like many Americans, I spent 9/11 glued to the television. I was most startled by the jumpers. Ordinary people like myself had merely gone to work that day. Suddenly, they were forced to pick their own suicide: burn to death or jump? My fantasies of hanging myself and burning the theatre down seemed glum. Disrespectful. The 9/11 jumpers would have gladly traded places with me to spend a night at the theatre.
Get over yourself, Dennis.
I miss my theatre.
Wednesday. September 12, 2001. The show needed go on, so we went back to work. We had been running The Lady From the Sea since August 24th –several days before the terrorist attack on 9/11. The out-of-town director and designers were long gone. Those of us still working on the show couldn’t deny the spooky similarities between the stage and the mess at the World Trade Center. Passionate discussions occurred.
Should the scenery be changed or let it be?
If it’s to be changed, how does the theatre decide what to change?
Should we get rid of the papers on the floor that look like debris?
Should we get rid of the two steel columns that look like the wreckage of the twin towers?
It was decided not to change a thing about our production. I was too numb to have an opinion one-way or the other.
Dutifully, we did another fifteen performances of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea. There was, no doubt, a more emotional and political lens on our production, but the play looked the same on the outside. However, we were all different on the inside. We were survivors: artists finding our art through the rubble and steel onstage. That little Norwegian play felt like the beginning of an American Revolution.
My friends and I weren’t born yet when Kennedy was shot in 1963.
“What were you doing the morning of 9/11?”
My roommate gets to say, “I was making porn.”
Or, “I had just baked a cherry pie.”
My answer will always be, “Ibsen.”
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. Photograph by Chris Bennion