Performing in a live theater production is always an adventure. The cast and crew will spend countless hours preparing for a role. Between memorizing lines, running scenes over and over, timing reactions and actions, an actor is dedicated to making sure one’s performance is just right. After weeks of practicing and preparing the moment of truth finally comes: opening night. One hopes that all the preparations will make for a flawless performance. Yet, no matter how prepared one attempts to be, there is one aspect of live theater that is beyond anyone’s control. Sometimes things go wrong.
The first rule of live performance is to perform exactly what was planned. The second rule is to make the mistakes look like they were planned. It takes a great deal of talent to be able to hide these flaws, and furthermore, the actors need to know their character and their scripts inside and out. Every production I have ever had the privilege of taking part in has had at least one thing go wrong, in spite of the best intentions and preparations of all involved. Usually the mishap is minor and perhaps not even noticed by the rest of the cast and crew. This is what one hopes for. A flubbed or jumbled line is the most common of performance mistakes, and it is usually easy to smooth over. The best mistake with a line is one that the actor can manage without any assistance from fellow cast members. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.
I will never forget one fateful performance that very well could have ended in disaster. We were performing a scene from Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue for our high school’s spring production. A fellow cast mate had two very similar lines which took the play in two very different directions. One night, she mixed them up, saying the second line when she should have delivered the first. This meant that about 10 minutes of the play were being skipped. While this was a little disappointing, the play would still make sense more or less even without the missing chuck of the play. So we all carried on as though nothing had been skipped, delivering our lines as practiced.
However, when this same cast mate should have cued the actor off stage to enter the scene, she instead said her original first line. This meant that we jumped the scene all the way back to the beginning, after we had already performed the second half of the play. The entire cast had a collective heart attack. At that point it was too late to simply say our lines as they were written and as we had practiced them. Now, before every line, we had to stop and think: “Ok, this is what the line is suppose to be. How can I say this now, after everything that we have already done, and have this line still make sense?”. It was ten full minutes of essentially improvised acting, within the confines of the context of the play. Luckily for me, my character mostly sat drinking coffee on a couch occasionally crying, so I did not have as much pressure to recover the play as did my fellow cast mates. Luckily, no one but the cast and director knew just how wrong things were going on stage, and we finished the play without the audience even realizing what had happened. Even so, it was the most terrifying 10 minutes of my acting experience, and remains so to this day.
In spite of the potential for disaster, not every mistake is bad. Sometimes a mistake actually makes the play better. While performing Death by Chocolate, my character was to be carried on stage unconscious and gently tossed onto the couch. One night, my cast mates threw me a little too hard. The couch tipped backwards and I, not breaking character, simply rolled across the stage floor, pretending to still be unconscious. It was an easy fix for my cast mates to simply roll me back onto the couch and tip it upright, flopping me around a good deal in the process. The audience roared with laughter. After the performance we discussed what a great laugh our mishap had received. For a moment we considered doing it on purpose for the remainder of the shows, but ultimately, we decided against it. It would have been actually very difficult to flip the couch intentionally without risking injury to me. It was just one of those magical theater moments that one simply can’t plan for.
Performing live is a thrilling experience, even when everything goes as planned. The adrenaline rush one feels after the first joke lands just right, the energy one feels from the audience, these often fuel the performers. There is nothing quite like it. One hopes that all the effort collectively put forth from the cast and crew will result in a performance the audience enjoys. Yet, it is almost guaranteed that something will go wrong, at least once during a shows run. This is the added challenge, to disguise a flaw as part of a flawless performance. This is the secret performance of an actor. One can only hope the audience will never know.