PART ONE – NORTH CAROLINA, 1996
William slides his hand down the back of my pants. I’ve stopped trying to stop him; I just let it happen.
He distracts everyone, pointing at a piece of theater set I painted, complimenting my technique. Indicating rough-hewn walls, new wood painted to look old, weathered. The patched wood, seamless, blends into the set. I’ve matched his technique, and covered a flaw. One good thing – he does sometimes point out a job well done, despite tantrums and sharp words, despite his wandering hands.
Sometimes he’ll expound upon design elements, textiles, perspective. “What looks luxurious from far away”, he explains, “might look a bit crude close up.” He’s talking about theater design, but he might as well be talking about himself.
Nobody sees him touching my ass. I make a mental note to wear a belt next time.
We work in the hot sun in the Outer Banks of North Carolina on a show called The Lost Colony, and William is our production designer. He is also a theater legend with three Tony awards at this point in his career; probably around fifty years old.
I feel lucky, intimidated. I don’t like his hand on my ass, but this summer has already worn me out, and we haven’t even opened the show yet. I’ve come to think of this unwanted touching as the price of admission, even though this is a job and not an amusement park. They’re paying me to take this shit. Oh, America.
He takes his hand away. I keep painting. Nobody saw. Nobody wants to see these kinds of things, and so nobody saw.
Luckily for me, the show will open in a few weeks, and William has to go check on his touring productions, has to start making drawings for a new Broadway show.
Us college theater folk are impressed by this: Broadway.
We make all sorts of excuses for him because he works on Broadway. To us, Broadway is more than a place, or a culture. It’s a fantasy remedy for our broken childhoods. It’s a totem, safe, and sparkling – brimming with raw potential. William is the gatekeeper to that world.
Even though his hand is gone, I’m still thinking about the groping. Minutes later, pulse racing, I feel ashamed, flushed, worried. I see the writing on the wall. He’s going to push this further than I’m comfortable with, soon.
(Hell, he’s pushed it further than I’m comfortable with now. How am I going to satisfy his ego without letting him have sex with me? I don’t see a way. Maybe I’ll avoid him? Not go to the party on opening night?)
I can take this until he leaves. I’m strong, I say to myself. This can’t break me. But I do feel ashamed for no reason, which leads to anger. Why should I feel ashamed for any reason? I didn’t touch anyone’s ass.
Should William even feel ashamed? I’m letting him. We are all letting him. Especially those of us who certainly didn’t see anything strange.
Later that night, I go to a party with the other college aged cast and crew members. I feel isolated – a little sad. I miss home and my friends from school, my family. What’s more, I’ve been promoted, and I’m part of the management team now. I’m not just a background actor anymore, because William “saw something special in me” and wanted me to props master the show. It was such a rush when they told me, and the reality of the situation didn’t sink in until much later. “I have to warn you,” the director of the show told me, “William isn’t easy to work with. He can be very difficult.”
It’s not a problem, I told the director, looking him in the eye – I’ll manage.
“Difficult” was an understatement, but I was right when I said I’ll manage. I do manage, and I pull off some pretty fantastic work that season. My team makes new props by hand. Wooden toy butterflies, stuffed Native American dolls, ribbons – odds and ends settlers might bring to a colony in the New World. At one point, William loses his cool over a basket of corn the natives bring as a gift to the settlers. It’s plastic corn we bought at a Joann’s Fabric. I wired it into the basket in neat, tidy stacks. This sets him off – the neat stacks of corn. He claims a squaw would just pick the corn and throw it in the basket. I argue with him. The indigenous people are meeting the settlers for the first time, I say. This is a special occasion. It’s logical someone might have taken the time to stack the corn nicely. If I’m OCD enough to wire it in bundles, it’s not an unreasonable thought that someone a few hundred years ago also had the same impulse.
William is enraged. He rips the corn out, throwing it at me. I duck. It hits another tech crew member in the face, who screams “I’m okay!” even before he registers the pain.
We’re trained to talk in very low tones about whatever insane behavior we tolerate on any given day, but we always follow up with, “I’m okay.” You never saw a more exhausted bunch of people running around telling one another how okay they are. I never did, anyway. But then again, at this point I’m only 21.
I try to salvage the pieces of plastic corn that aren’t torn up beyond recognition. Only part of it was damaged. Nobody will see. I use a hot glue gun, because wiring the corn is not an option anymore – it’s too damaged and there’s nothing to anchor it. I’m worried about the hot glue gun. It’s one of William’s pet peeves, and the senior costume folks warned me he would flip out if he saw that I even had one. I take my chances. They shake their heads and mutter to one another. William abuses the costume department the most. They’re overworked, overmanaged, constantly shell shocked. Still, later that night, after a few drinks, one of the costume designers implies that I’m shaking my ass at William in exchange for special privileges. He uses my secret hot glue gun as an example. That’s how crazy we’ve been made, in only a few weeks. I’m accused of prostituting myself for the sake of a hot glue gun. Welcome to showbiz.
The next day he slides his hand down my ass again in the costume shop. I wiggle free.
It keeps up like this. Nobody sees. A few people see, actually, but they minimize it by calling it things like ‘special attention.’ At some point in the rehearsal process I get frustrated. William is treating me like an idiot all day long in front of the entry level tech people. When he’s not doing that, he corners me in musty prop cabins, carpentry sheds, behind wood-paneled dressing rooms. I pull him aside and ask him to stop. I tell him it’s embarrassing to me when he yells at me in front of people I’ll have to manage for an entire summer. He asks me if I’ve ever had a job with a boss before. Yes, I say. He shrugs and tells me I’m on deadline, then he takes away the three helpers he has assigned me.
Later in the day, I ask for an extension. William denies it. I speak up, telling him it’s unfair to expect the same deadline after he’s wasted time yelling at me, taking away my technicians, making me feel small. William calls everyone into a group.
“Attention, everyone! Michael is having a hard time making his deadline, and so now, instead of a lunch break, EVERYONE on the crew will work an hour for Michael.” People are pissed. They want to eat, and maybe relax for an hour or so. The sun is beating down on us. I spring into action. Somehow, even with no plan for what I’d get accomplished with twenty extra pairs of hands, I find something for everyone to do. I separate people with artistic talent. I assign them mini projects. People are tearing rags, slathering paint, sewing things. It’s going so well that William forgets he’s angry and gives me the entire team for two and a half hours, instead of just one. We skip lunch.
People aren’t angry with me, somehow. They get it. We trade horror stories and then quickly mutter how okay we are.
William asks me to dinner at his hotel that night. We can have wine, and if I drink too much I can sleep over. I decline.
At the actors apartment complex the Lost Colony owns, someone is always throwing a party in one of the shared apartments. That, or we meet at a picnic table near a grove of trees and sip beer. They’re nice to me that night. Even if they don’t see what’s going on, they see what’s going on. It doesn’t stop him, but maybe it takes some of the sting away.
It’s okay. I’m okay.
It will be fine once we open.
It’s fine; be professional. Don’t wash out, okay?
You’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
I go for an overnight trip with Karl, who is the costume shop manager. He’s William’s right hand man. He lives a couple hours away in Virginia Beach. He’s searching for fabric and buys a little, but isn’t overly impressed with the stock. I buy a few props for my department, but I’m afraid to make any bold moves. I don’t want William’s wrath raining down on me again, and I’d rather come back from the trip completely empty-handed than buy the wrong things. Buying the wrong things will set him into a humiliating rage.
I’m not sure why I was brought on this trip. All the things I need for my props can be purchased nearer to the theater, and I don’t have any must-have items list that have to be sourced elsewhere. Yet, Karl made a huge deal about how driving 2.5 hours to his place was absolutely crucial. We’re on a time crunch. The whole show goes up with only five weeks rehearsal time. We’re three weeks in, and we’re running out of time. I want so badly to prove I was the right choice for this job.
Later, at Karl’s house, we take a dip in the hot tub. This is framed innocently enough, after a vodka tonic or two. Karl makes fun of me for wearing my shorts in the hot tub. He says it’s fine if I just go naked, or in my underwear. I pour another drink – this time a stiff one. He says that his boyfriend is out of town, and that if I want to, we can stay in their room together and have some fun. He’s easily fifteen years older than me, and higher than me on the theater food chain. Or, at least it seems that way. When I point this out he explains to me that it’s fine – he’s the costume shop manager and I’m the props master, so we’re equal. But, he’s worked for William for many years, and I don’t feel equal. He puts his hand on my knee, underneath the water. He squeezes harder when I pull away. It hurts. I pretend to be drunker than I am and stumble to the guest room. I pass out. He doesn’t try anything creepy while I’m asleep, I’m pretty sure.
The car ride home is quiet the next day. William curls up a smile when he sees us walk in together backstage. “How was your trip?” he asks, all saccharine and syrup. I tell him I found a few things, but there wasn’t much selection. “Well I hope you two had fun,” he chortles, “But it sounds like you wasted everyone’s time.” Sure, I say, and hang my head. He wonders aloud how anyone on a props deadline could waste an entire day, and not find anything. As I’m leaving I actually say, “sorry,” and I’m immediately furious with myself. I shouldn’t have to apologize for doing my job. Besides, everyone on this tech crew is trying to stick their finger up my ass. I think all these things, but say nothing. I go back to work.
that day William asks again. Dinner at his hotel. We could have fun, he insists, if we get away from this environment. He wants to know if I like a certain actor. Do I think he’s cute? He’s been coming to dinner and hanging out, too. I point out that it’s irrelevant whether I think he’s cute or not, because he’s straight. William just laughs. “I know ways to get straight guys to relax and give you what you want,” he says.
“I don’t have three Tony awards, a trust fund, and a townhouse in Chelsea, I say.” I’m testing the waters. Being snide about his power, his station. William thinks this is very funny. There’s some sort of twinkle in his eye. He’s not used to someone challenging him. I see for a brief second that to some people, life is just a game. That William is almost bored of winning it.
“I don’t need money,” he says. “People get sleepy after a certain amount of wine. They forget things.” Toying with me, he sneers, and holds eye contact a little too long. “For that matter,” he says, “there are other things, besides wine – that make people forget…”
“I think I have plans tonight,” I say.
I start keeping a journal after that. Maybe other people are going to forget things, I think to myself – but not me. I’m going to remember. I can’t sleep at night, now, so I blow off steam by writing about what’s happening to me.
I reach a state of exhaustion. It’s an outdoor drama, so the work on the set – it’s all done in the sun. We don’t have sunscreen; we’re poor and can’t afford it. We look tanned and young and feisty, but we’re stretched pretty thin. And, I have a psychological exhaustion nagging at me from all the groping and innuendo nobody sees.
I start to hear absurd rumors that William and I are carrying on an affair. Sure, I say to a straight guy who asks me if I’m dating William. Can’t you see how warm and loving he is to me? Everyone laughs at this, but then they all fall silent. It’s a dark joke, and forces them to confront the reality of what’s happening. After some time, another gay crew member says something minimizing, like, well at least you’re getting attention from a theater legend, and grimaces.
“If you didn’t like it,” he says, pausing, challenging me, “You’d tell him to stop.”
“Thanks for the solidarity,” I say, annoyed at everything and everyone. I do tell him to stop, I think to myself. In hundreds of ways I have signaled my disinterest. And William knows I’m not interested. It has become a game between us.
Later, a dancer in the show pulls me aside to check on me. He rubs my shoulders and tells me it’s okay. In fact, it could be more than okay. I’m confused, and don’t quite get what he’s saying. William can make or break careers, he says. Not just designers, writers, actors. He has the connections they need to succeed. But he can also drive people away. Spread rumors about them. Make them feel insecure, crazy, alone. The dancer then tells me I should just do my best to stay off his radar, if I don’t plan on sleeping with him eventually.
“I mean, I can tell it bothers you,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me. William paid me and another actor once to have sex with each other in front of this strange dude, who later wound up investing a lot of money in the show. But, I mean, who cares,” he says with a shrug. “I would have fucked this guy anyway. I wanted to all summer and then I got paid to do it!”
Suddenly I feel less comforted. I start talking about sexual harassment. The dancer cuts me off. “Gay people don’t have that,” he says, matter of factly. “Also, who are they going to believe? A theater legend with three Tonys, and everything to lose? Or a blond college kid, with nothing to lose and everything to gain? They’ll make you look like a gold digger or a hustler.”
I walk home feeling bitter. It’s not like the dancer was trying to make me feel worse, but gay people have a way of shitting on one another’s mood sometimes, cloaking it in “honesty” or “concern.” I’ve seen women do it to one another, too. They’re afraid someone they like will get into hot water, and so they project their own fears on to the situation. It’s well intentioned, but it can feel pretty rotten.
Also, sometimes it isn’t so well intentioned.
Part of the problem with William is that he’s actually supportive. Part of the problem is that he knows he’s difficult to work with, and he knows that on some level, working with a brilliant man (he teaches at an Ivy League school when he isn’t too busy on Broadway) is reward enough. And he isn’t wrong. I learn things from him that summer. How to source things. What textures can be replicated with what paint techniques. Color theory. He takes an interest. The unwanted sexual attention is juxtaposed with rants, tirades about work quality. He considers it a privilege to work with him, and he isn’t wrong. His criticism is astute, and unassailable. It’s just that, this isn’t a union job, and most of us are clearing about $95 a week, with a free place to stay. After we buy food, there isn’t much left.
William has stopped trying to hide his advances toward me, and is now openly sexualizing me in front of other people. “I liked your work better yesterday,” he says one day, in front of my support staff, “But then again, yesterday you had your shirt off.” His tone is so belittling and snide, but I’m completely used up at this point. It’s exhausting, the nature of opening a huge show in a short time is enough stress without constant infantilizing, condescending, flirting and gross sexual innuendo. There’s no way around the groping, the little traps he sets with me and his higher ranking support staff – it all adds up to something disgusting, something more than unsettling. An unfair power dynamic, I mutter to myself, even as I know I’m searching for stronger words to describe what’s happening.
My eye starts to twitch, and for six days before we open, it spasms uncontrollably. The programs come out. I’m listed as “props assistant.” When I tell the office staff I was hired as props master, they inform me that William changed the job title, since I was coming in with no experience. I’m infuriated. All of this bullshit, all this sacrificing time I could have been on stage, and I don’t even get the credit on my resume.
I want to scream in his face. Push him off the dock behind the theater where we light the fireworks at the end of act one. I want to quit and sue The Lost Colony for sexual harassment. Still, I know I’m dealing with an industry giant, and I have no interest in being a giant-slayer. At this point, I’d settle for go-along-to-get-along. Even so, I’m compelled to confront him.
“William,” I say, in the costume shop, gathering up as much tact as I can muster, “I understand we have a mutual appreciation. You’re brilliant and I’m very flattered you picked me to nurture this summer.”
“I’m a very nurturing person,” he says, pulling some lace fabric taught, then letting it spring back.
I choose my words carefully. We are alone in the shop. I’m closer to the doorway than him. We are both stressed out. Dress rehearsal is hours away.
“I think there’s much to learn from you.”
“I think we’re just scratching the surface.”
He’s closing in on me. He steps between me and the open doorway.
“Be that as it may – I don’t really like what’s going on between us, as far as the touching is concerned. I’m a fun, funny guy sometimes, and I don’t mind some playful banter, but you fondling me in front of the actors and tech crew is so belittling and demeaning.” I pause, choosing my next words carefully. “So, you should know this – if you take it even a little bit further, I will own The Lost Colony. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He says nothing.
“I’m willing to chalk this up to a misunderstanding. But, there’s a big difference between how people on a sports team slap each other on the ass, and sliding your hands down someone’s pants. And, I think we can both agree, the line has been crossed.”
He says nothing.
“What’s more, I’m sure a judge will see what I’m talking about, and will see that the difference is vast, and absolutely worth quibbling about.”
He says nothing.
“So, how about this? How about, we forget all about it? How about we just continue on with our relationship, and I don’t say anything, and you don’t say anything. How about, if you see something ‘special’ in me, you just foster that for its own sake, and not try to get special perks? How about we have mutual professional respect, and stop treating each other so transactionally?”
He says nothing.
“It’s not that I don’t like you. It’s not that I don’t want to learn from you. It’s that I’m under quite a bit of pressure, in a job I’ve never done before. There are more than 500 props in this show, and I’m responsible for keeping track of their movement every single night, and making sure they return home for the next performance. Plus, we’re overhauling the inventory, and that’s enough to focus on for a hundred bucks a week. If you really think I’m such a special mind worth developing, then that should be enough on its own. I don’t owe you more than that. Are we clear?”
He says nothing. One of his assistants walks into the room. William clears his throat.
“Are we done here? Did you say you were stressed out? Don’t you have props to attend to?”
I certainly do, I think to myself, and I leave. But, instead of going back to my props cabin, I head off to the stage manager. We have a chat about William and the conversation I’ve had with him. About how I think I can last the summer, since he’s leaving soon. About how she is willing to support me if I wind up pressing charges. About how I don’t think that will be necessary. About how I want to preserve my chances for a career in theater, but I can’t allow a man to keep doing these things to me. She is kind and understanding.
The show opens. There’s a party. William leaves for a while.
My eye stops twitching. Everything settles. I’m okay.
ll okay. Oh, it’s fine. We’re all okay.
We all relax into a simple routine.
It’s almost just a memory.