One of the things that I love about live theatre is the fact that it is, in fact, “live.” Movies and television spend countless hours honing and perfecting exactly what they want you to see how they want you to see it. Actors get to deliver their line over and over and over again for a camera. The cinematographer gets to make them look good, the sound editor makes them sound good, and the editor gets to choose the perfect take or use computer wizardry to alter it so that it’s the perfect performance for the audience in the movie theater to see. Stage actors, on the other hand, are out there on their own live and in person. While the lighting and costume crew have done an admirable job to make the actors look good, the truth is that the actor is out there on their own in front of a live audience. Despite weeks of rehearsal to ensure that everything goes as planned, the possibility exists that almost anything can go horribly wrong in the moment.
Talk to stage veterans and they will have plenty of stories about the crazy, unexpected things that happen on stage for which you have no control and must find a way to improvise and carry on as best you can. In my post 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success, the number one thing on my list was the way that being an actor and a theatre major taught me to keep focus and improvise in any number of difficult and unexpected situations:
The great thing about the stage is that when it’s live and you’re up in front of that audience anything can, and does, happen. Dropped lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. Theatre taught me how to focus, think quickly and make do while giving the impression that you’ve got it all under control. It’s served me well when clients, airlines, coworkers, or technology wreak unexpected havoc at the worst possible moment.
The other night in dress rehearsal for Ah, Wilderness! I had one of my most humbling and unnerving experiences on stage in 35 years. First of all, I must start with a confession that I committed a cardinal sin of the stage by having my iPhone in my suit coat pocket. If you’ve followed my blog or Facebook feed you’ll know that I love to capture pictures of the hidden world of the theatre backstage and moments that the audience never sees. So, during the rehearsal process I’ve kept my iPhone close so as to snap a few of these pictures back stage.
On Tuesday night my iPhone was in my breast coat pocket, but I had also slipped my reading glasses in that pocket without giving it a thought. As we got into the first scene of Act II the reading glasses, which must have been resting against the phone in just the right way, pushed the button on my iPhone kicking in the familiar tone for Siri, the iPhone’s talking digital assistant.
I will not print the words which entered my brain at the moment I heard those tones coming from my coat. Panic struck, but I realized that I had to ignore the sounds coming from my suit jacket as I calmly played out this family scene set in 1906 as if nothing happened out of the ordinary.
I fumbled my line as my brain raced, trying to figure out a way to inconspicuously get my phone out of my pocket and off stage or turned off or anything that might keep Siri from making her unwanted stage debut in the Eugene O’Neill classic.
#$&@! It kept happening! I told myself to ignore the phone and to try to keep from moving in such a way that it would go off again. “Just focus!” I told myself, “and play out the scene as if nothing happened.”
At this point in the scene my character was trying to convince his son, Arthur, to sing a song for the family. Continuing to muster all the concentration I could, I calmly delivered my line center stage:
…Why not give us a song or two now? You can play for him, can’t you, Mildred?
It was right about that time I heard Siri’s robotic female voice answering from my breast pocket:
I’m very sorry, Tom. I can’t play any music for you right now.
Fortunately, the exceptional young actors from Central College admirably maintained their composure and carried on as if nothing happened. Humiliated, I got through the scene and put my iPhone in my backpack where it should have been all along. Leave it to the old veteran to get caught making a rookie mistake. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.
Once again, however, it illustrates the exciting nature of live theatre. When you’re watching fallible human beings playing out a story on stage live and in the moment, you never know what what you might happen to witness.