Our Resident Acting Company talks about their personal theatre nightmares.
I have had the best experiences when things go wrong on stage! A few years ago I was in Everyman’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. During the show I had a rather fast quick change where I would exit stage left, run around backstage, get a full wardrobe change and re-enter stage right. My dress was made to look like a skirt and top with a full, hidden zipper and tiny clasp. One night the zipper, which held everything together, wouldn't budge. Time was running out and no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the zipper to move. There was absolutely nothing I could do so I entered with only the tiny clasp and my rear totally exposed. Fortunately if I stood sideways the audience couldn't see the glaring error. My scene partner, the amazing Yaegel Welch, caught on and we improvised new blocking for the whole scene. I’ve never grapevined and walked backwards so much in my entire life, but we did it and it was fantastic!!!
Several years back I was asked to jump into the role of Ruth in Blithe Spirit at a theatre in Florida at the last minute. The theatre had lost their Ruth and so I was an emergency replacement. Fortunately, I had just completed playing Elvira in a production of Blithe Spirit in Delaware and the play was fresh in my mind. I literally closed the Delaware Blithe Spirit on Sunday, and began rehearsing the Florida Blithe Spirit on Tuesday. It was a real challenge to block out the Elvira lines I knew so well, all while learning the lines for Ruth.
We got the show open that Friday and on Sunday, in the opening scene, I lifted my cocktail glass to finish a joke and realized... I didn't know what to say next. I was completely blank. It’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor. It’s called going “up.” I think it’s called that because it feels as if you are suddenly somewhere up above your body, far away from the earth: it is terrifying. As I was hovering over my body awash in humiliation I suddenly realized that I didn't know which character I was. The terror was mounting. I looked around for clues and saw myself reflected in the stage management booth window. Now, in the previous year I played Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and in that play I had a beautiful midnight blue cocktail dress... unfortunately for me, in the opening scene of Blithe Spirit the costumer had put me in another midnight blue cocktail dress. I saw myself in that lovely blue, and thought ”I DON'T KNOW WHAT PLAY I’M IN.” I looked around me and saw another actor on stage with me. I can't imagine what it felt like to be him in that moment. He tried to help. He fed me a line: I shook my head no. He fed me another: I smiled wanly and shrugged. Finally, he walked over, took the martini glass out of my hand, and led me to the sofa where he played the remainder of the short scene with himself until finally something clicked in my mind and I recollected where I was and what to say.
The stage manager rushed backstage at intermission because she thought I had a stroke.
Many years ago in 1966 I spent a summer in Helena, Montana at the Old Brewery Theatre (literally everything was in an old brewery building from the late 1800's.) We were in repertory with 4 shows at the same time. I was playing the comic character in the musical Brigadoon. At one point I stuck my head through an open window in a freestanding "insert set" and said my line "Nice place." Immediately, the set teetered and fell flat in front of me. Hushed silence from the audience who obviously knew this was not supposed to happen. I gathered my wits and said "Well, that was nice...." Thank God they appreciated the ad-lib and applauded.
I was in a local production some years back. Mid-way through the run, at an evening performance, at half hour, I was notified that someone else would be playing my walk-on role. I would be going on for one of the leads that had not shown up. I would have my script in hand and right before the show the director would very quickly talk through the actor’s blocking as well the brief musical interlude I was to perform. I was chosen, not because I was an understudy, but because I had the least to do in my walk-on and I was most willing to be thrown to the wolves. In truth I was thrilled/terrified, but I knew audiences generally enjoyed a bit of real life showing up suddenly in a show. My performance was a complete blur (full of flop sweat) but all-in-all a successful go of it on such short notice. Afterwards, when I had a chance to breathe I asked what had happened to him, the lead. Was he ok? I learned that earlier in the day he had gone to a park just out of town and mistakenly cruised a cop for sex. He was promptly arrested and detained for 24 hours. Much chagrined he was back the following night and we wanted full details.
I came to Baltimore in the early 70's when Center Stage (then on North Avenue) asked me to join their acting company. It was my first foray into professional theatre and one of my first shows was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in which I played a rather reticent Dr. Spivey. The director was very big on everything being as real as possible right down to the lock on the only door to the set. Access to and from the stage was possible only by using a real key in the real lock in the large metal door. We all worried about this choice and clean entrances and exits were difficult to achieve. A few weeks into the run I found myself unable to exit after a session with the patients because my real key would not work in the real lock. My ad-libs were undoubtedly inane and finally I resorted to banging on the door and shouting until a member of the stage crew rescued me. Welcome to the real professional theatre!