Shirley Gee’s play Warrior was inspired by the true story of Hannah Snell (1723-1792), whose adventures at sea, disguised as a man, were described in the chapbook “The Female Soldier” printed in London in 1750.
I can say with complete honestly that I took a beating during the run of this play.
Hannah Snell never leaves the stage during the entire performance of Warrior. That was a problem when she needed to change costumes. Ironically, there was talk of disguising me as a madwoman to help her change clothes onstage when she escaped the women’s asylum and disguises herself as a man.
“I don’t want to be onstage unless I’m the star,” I joked with the production manager.
However, the design team found another way to get me onstage in Warrior when Hannah changed from girl clothes to man clothes. My job was to roll a large screen onstage and help Hannah change her costume, then roll the screen offstage with her girl discards and never be seen by the audience. The screen was attached to a narrow platform on wheels. It had handles on the backside, along with Hannah’s man clothes: a shirt, knickers, a jacket, stockings, shoes, and a hat. I had maybe sixty seconds to transform the actress from a girl into a faux-male sailor while she continued to talk to the other characters onstage.
A nifty way for me to help her to change clothes without leaving the stage or stopping the show, correct?
The problem was the screen was very rickety. Rather than me simply rolling the screen on stage with dignity, it was somewhat like hand gliding it through stormy rapids. I instantly disliked the screen and was very upset that there was no other way to change her costume.
“Can’t she come offstage? Just for a minute?”
“No,” I was told.
Every night I would get a little stomach ache as I carefully preset Hannah’s costume on the back of the screen. I wanted to vomit when I got the cue to roll from the assistant stage manager.
It can be very difficult to change an actor’s costume onstage while they are acting. The actress playing Hannah was a pro, but she was in character and was changing clothes in full-blown fierce mode. For sixty seconds, it was a costume jungle behind that screen.
She insisted on dressing herself.
I didn’t exist. I was merely the vessel that brings her the costume, not a dresser.
I quickly learned to just stay out of her way.
And my worst nightmare came true.
One night, as I rolled the screen onstage, it tipped over on top of me. I leveled the screen and recovered quickly. I just kept rolling the goddamned rickety thing to center stage like I was supposed to. Lucky for the show, I got the stupid thing onstage at all.
However, right before Hannah was due to change behind the screen, I saw the stage manager in the wings holding Hannah’s shoes. They had fallen off the back of the screen offstage when it tipped over on top of me …and I now was onstage.
Hannah Snell shows up behind the screen speaking her dialogue and the costume change began. We were onstage, so I couldn’t really talk to her; the audience would hear me. Besides, she was in character.
I decided to just wait and see what happened.
Hannah took her dress off.
…She said a line of dialogue.
Hannah put her knickers on.
…She said another line of dialogue.
Hannah put her shirt on.
Hannah put a stocking on.
…She said her line.
Hannah put her other stocking on.
I stopped breathing.
All of a sudden, Hannah punched me in the chest.
“Where are my fucking shoes?” she whispered. I pointed to the stage manager in the wings. He was still holding them …in front of his face.
Hannah said another line in full voice, then she punched me in the chest again.
“Get me my fucking shoes!” she whispered violently. No doubt the audience could hear her.
There was at least fifteen feet between me and those shoes. I couldn’t exactly roll the screen on, then roll the screen back with the shoes. I just wanted the sixty seconds to be over and to not get slugged again.
“Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!” she snarled, punching me a third, fourth, and fifth time in the chest.
I marched off stage like I had a purpose …a gallant soldier at war. So what that I was wearing a black tee shirt and black Levi’s in an eighteenth century play? I was getting exactly what I asked for: to be the star of Warrior (for a second or two). But what I really wanted was to go home without any bruises.
“Thank you,” I told the stage manager sarcastically as I snatched the shoes from his cowardly hands. Why couldn’t he have brought the fucking shoes to me?
I handed the shoes to Hannah. She put them on and I rolled the screen offstage on cue and collapsed to the floor. Despite the debacle, the actress wasn’t late for her entrance and no one ever mentioned seeing me onstage. Denial at work.
“Should I fill out an accident report or a police report for Warrior?” I wondered to myself.
It’s so easy to get lost in a play. We thespians protect the integrity of the Art with our heart and soul. I would prefer to not get slugged by a leading lady, but I certainly understand why she reacted the way that she did. The truth is, I have had a lot of cuts and bruises over the years working backstage and I don’t regret any of them.
A stage carpenter came to work on his day off to put better wheels on my screen platform for Warrior. I bought him a case of beer for his kindness. Money well spent.
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.