The Worst People You'll Meet in Theatre
- OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing people in various productions; people who sacrifice so much time and always bring a positive attitude. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with these folks again.
Then there is the flip side—those who seem to ruin every production they’re involved with or ruin theatre altogether for others. I can’t stand these people, and try to avoid working with them as much as possible. So here is a list of the worst people in theatre who I’ve either worked with or encountered in some fashion. Some of these might sound familiar.
I never thought calling someone a diva should be an insult. A diva is someone who is a celebrated performer, who has won countless acclaim with his or her incredible talent. However in most cases, when we say someone is being a diva, it means they’re belittling the rest of the cast, making the crew answer to their every whim, refusing to take direction and bringing down the entire production. This isn’t being a diva, it’s being a bully.
I was working in a play where the lead actor berated a member of the running crew because his drink didn’t have any ice cubes in it. While there was no mention of ice in the scene, the play was set in the summer, so the actor felt the drink needed to have ice. He screamed at the running crew member and told him that he had “no business being back stage.” The running crew member was a high school student doing this as a summer internship, by the way.
I was in a musical where one of the actresses was constantly late for rehearsals. Not five or ten minutes late, more like 30 to 45 minutes late. There might be an occasional phone call or text to the stage manager, but not many. Finally, two weeks before opening night, the director called her out for being late yet again. After a back and forth between them, the actress finally yelled, “Well I’d like to see what this production would be like without me!” In response, the director immediately fired her and told another actress to get upstairs for a costume fitting. Needless to say this shocked the bully and she stormed out of the theatre.
The lesson here is, if you think you’re irreplaceable to a production, please let the director know that and they can put that notion to the test. If someone displays this sort of behavior in one of my shows, I will not cast that person again. I know a lot of directors who feel the same way.
"The Dictator Director"
There is nothing worse for actors than to have a director who tells them the exact way he wants each line read or exactly where to move and when. The Dictator Director is someone who controls every aspect of his production to the point where it destroys the creative process. The Dictator Director also treats his stage manager as his servant. To be clear, I have no problem with a director wanting his vision realized on stage, but there are ways to get what you want out of your actors and crew, and being a tyrant isn’t one of them.
Sadly, I have worked with too many Dictator Directors. I was once doing a production of All My Sons, and the director fed me every line the way he wanted it to sound. Inflect here, pause there. I felt like Howard Stern on “WNNNNNBC!” He went as far as to remind me to inflect and pause at intermission during the run of the show.
Another director, when asked by her cast about changing some blocking said, “Look if you want to direct the show, I’ll leave right now. If not, shut the fuck up and do what I say!” Needless to say we didn’t ask about changing anything after that.
So I try to avoid being the Dictator Director as much as possible. Rehearsals are supposed to be safe spaces where creativity and new ideas can come together. I might have a vision of what I want for a production, but an actor or designer might have a better idea, and we directors need to be open for that.
"The Generals of the Stagehand/Actor War"
Someday I want Ken Burns to do a documentary on where and when the Stagehand/Actor War began. It doesn’t happen on every production, but when it does, it really sucks. For some odd reason, some stagehands think that all actors are prima donna sh*theads, while some actors think that all stagehands are weird depressed people who are always angry about something. Neither is correct. And when someone comes into a production with this belief, the battle lines are drawn and the backstage environment becomes toxic. As an actor, I rely on the crew as much as they rely on me. A production has to be a collaborative professional effort. And the folks who come in ready to do battle with each other have no business in my shows.
"The Prado Friends"
I was set to direct a show in the summer. The January before auditions, I was Facebook friended by an actor who, in the coming months, would “like” and comment on all of my statuses. Whenever I would see this actor in person, he would treat me as if we had been best friends for years. When auditions came around, he was one of the first to read for a certain role. I didn’t end up casting him, and everything changed. The “liking” stopped. No longer was I greeted with a hug and smile. In fact when I see him now, he doesn’t even acknowledge my presence.
These are Prado Friends, fake knockoffs of what actual friends are. Prado Friends will be the best friends you ever had, until you don’t give them what they want or aren’t valuable enough for what they need, whether it’s casting them, selecting their show proposal or seeing their show and making sure that the Facebook community knows how amazing they were. The Prado Friendship hangs by a thin thread.
As a director, sadly, I know too many of these people... or used to know them.
"The Bored Members"
I’ve always believed that a season of theatre needs to be both entertaining and interesting for an audience. For every Hello Dolly! there should be a Christopher Durang or David Ives piece. It annoys me beyond belief when I see a theatre do the same type of show every single season because it’s what the “Bored Members” want. These people refuse to allow any new types of productions in their seasons and instead choose old chestnut favorites year after year after year.
I’ve spoken with Bored Members who insist on having shows that appeal to the elderly audiences, forgetting about the rest of the demographics that come to see their shows. It annoys me when Bored Members have the facilities and talent pool to do some extraordinary work but settle for doing a Neil Simon piece every year.
Your audiences are faithful people. They will come no matter what you perform. And whatever audience you lose by doing a Durang or Ives, you’ll gain the audience that has been craving to see their work on local stages.
"Mr. or Mrs. Forgot Where They Came From"
We all started somewhere. We were all nobodies. We all had to work to build what we have. Sadly, some of these people forget the journey or who helped them along the way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen various people in the area become Mr. or Mrs. Forgot Where They Came From and scoff at the idea of helping an upstart theatre company or someone who wants to get more involved in theatre. I’ve heard comments such as, “Let them produce a good show, then I’ll get involved” or “I didn’t need any help, so why should they get mine?” It’s as if because they’ve been involved in successful productions or have success in other areas, they won’t help others achieve the same type of success.
"The Upper Decker"
A friend suggested this one and I’m glad he did, because the Upper Decker is truly one of the worst. Say you’re talking with someone about a production of Romeo and Juliet you were in, and how wonderful it was. Without missing a beat, the person you’re speaking with chimes in that they too were in a production of Romeo and Juliet, and how much more incredible their production was than yours. This is the Upper Decker. No matter how fantastic, well-reviewed or high-grossing your production was, theirs was better, bigger and grander.
Your production of Annie got apositive review from a local publication? Their production got a feature in the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times. You had a sold out performance? They sold out their entire run, extended it for two months and had to hold a lottery for tickets. You worked with a really talented cast? They taught Idina Menzel how to sing. I hate these fucking people. Their entire purpose is to boost their own egos and make your achievements seem small. How do you beat an Upper Decker? You’d probably have to win a Tony. But then, they probably would say they won two of them.
"The Protector of Broadway"
I have a confession to make. I’m not a fan of Miss Saigon. (My dislike for the piece is another column for another time.) I was explaining my dislike to someone recently and they reacted by telling me how much they loved the show and how obviously I didn’t know what I was talking about if I didn’t worship “The Heat is on in Saigon.” The Protector of Broadway is someone whose love and admiration for a show is so deep, that if you have even the slightest differing opinion, you’re obviously a moron.
"The Opening Night Off Booker"
When I direct a production, I have two rules: 1. Show up on time. 2. Know your lines. That’s it. I even go as far as to give the cast the off-book date at the first rehearsal. This is to avoid having to deal with the Opening Night Off Booker. These people somehow, some way, even after being in numerous productions, are still incapable of learning their lines. The one thing they are capable of, however, is bringing down the entire rehearsal period. Getting blocking down? Forget it. Exploring character development? Yeah, right. The Opening Night Off Booker will worry about all that during the second weekend of the run. These people are legendary, and if you’re one of them, you’re naive to think that directors don’t spread the word of who you are. There have been really talented people who have auditioned for me who I will never cast because they are widely known as Opening Night Off Bookers.
"The Starving Audience Member"
This past year I went to a performance of Les Misérables. During Act Two, Jean Valjean was absolutely pouring his heart and soul out during his rendition of “Bring Him Home.” Unfortunately, his incredible performance had to compete with the sound from a group of women next to me who were rummaging through packages of cookies. Apparently Act One was four hours long and it was feeding time for this group. The crackle of plastic wrapping might as well have been nails on a chalkboard for me, and it didn’t end there.
Since cookies are dry when entering one’s mouth, every so often one of the members of this group would start coughing when their cookies got in the way of, you know, breathing. I would have loved to have seen the wonderful performance, but I was too busy dodging pieces of Chips Ahoy like bullets at the barricade.
I hate hate hate it when people bring food with them into the theatre. The unwrapping and chomping and spilling and odor, I hate it all. When I see concessions being sold seat-side at Broadway shows like at a ball game, I feel like the rest of the theatre world is laughing at us. I completely understand that concessions can help with revenue for a show, but for God’s sake people, leave the food at the door.
"The Surprising Conflicts"
I was in the process of casting a musical and we ended up casting a young woman for one of the lead roles. It was the perfect situation; she was talented and didn’t have any conflicts. We cast her over others who just simply had too many conflicts in the six-week period of rehearsals.
After the cast was announced, I received an email from the actress with the subject line, “Additional conflicts.” I shuddered and opened the email to see that, all of a sudden, the actress who didn’t have any conflicts before she was cast wouldn’t be available until after 8:30 on most weeknights, would be away on vacation during tech weekend and didn’t have a car! Rather than deal with the Surprising Conflicts, I fired her from the role and cast another actress who, thankfully, didn’t have any conflicts whatsoever.
Folks, believe it or not, scheduling conflicts will affect your casting, so be honest when filling them out on an audition sheet. If you don’t do this, you’re lying to the director, and working with him or her again could be out of the question.
"Mama & Papa Rose"
I typically try to avoid having to work with children, not because I don’t think they’re talented or I don’t want to work with them. It’s because most of the time, dealing with their parents can be a pain in the ass. I was directing a musical which had just one role for a child. The young girl was a fantastic talent but her mother and father were absolutely the worst. The mother came in with a list of blocking suggestions, including which side of the stage her daughter would look best on. The father was the getaway driver, he would come in at 8:58 and remind me that he daughter needed to be out of there by 9, even if we were in the middle of a scene.
On the opening night, Mama & Papa Rose came up to me and told me how upset they were that I didn’t put a spotlight on their daughter during the show. I explained how other people were on stage dancing during her song and if I took down the lights and put a spot on stage, it would look ridiculous and possibly cause the dancers to fall over each other. They replied with eye rolls and whining about how her school director always gave spotlights to their daughter.
I know that not all parents are like this. Most of you are the most supportive people who only nurture and encourage your kids to be all they can be on stage. I know my parents are. But then there are some of you who are the Mama & Papa Roses, and if you’re ever wondering why your child isn’t getting certain roles or cast in shows, take a look in the mirror.
"The Holier Than Thou Cast"
“We’re going to change the way you think,” “We’re going to open your eyes,” “We’re re-inventing the wheel and curing cancer.” These are statements I’ve heard casts make about their various productions over the years… okay maybe not the last one but you get the point.
Typically, you hear these phrases when it comes to more dramatic plays and musicals that deal with a multitude of topics like equal rights mental health, gay issues, etc. I have no problem with a cast believing that they are making the world a better place with their productions. I think it’s wonderful to see a cast that inspired on stage.
Where I draw the line is when they broadcast on social media that they’re doing it. Because if I see their your production and don’t rethink my values or have my eyes opened, either I feel like an ass, or you look like one for telling me that your show will do all those things. Avoid telling people how they’re supposed or are expected to feel when seeing your show. Let them react however they want to.
"The Red Snapper"
Tech week is stressful. This is a given. Everyone is working hard, trying to learn their lines, finish the set, etc. Everyone’s anxiety is heightened, and every now and then a release has to happen. But how you decide to release your stress will determine if you are a normal human being or The Red Snapper.
I was in a play and we were coming down to the wire. It was a large cast, and some of the actors were far from getting their lines down, so everyone was on edge. One of the cast members, who had the reputation of being a bit surly, seemed to be primed to blow up. One of the scenes just wasn’t working right, and the director started to make some blocking changes. This actor wasn’t understanding why he had to move from one spot to another and after a back and forth with the director, finally snapped.
“WHERE THE F*CK DO YOU WANT ME TO MOVE?!?!?!,” he screamed at the director.
Needless to say this caught everyone off guard and made for an extremely awkward moment. Luckily for this actor, the director was a forgiving person, because I would have fired him right on the spot.
There seems to be always one Red Snapper in every cast—the person who can’t take the stress and feels the need to lash out in order to feel better. Nothing good ever comes from doing this; it shows that you just can’t handle it, and every director will remember that you can’t. Find another outlet. Screaming in the middle of rehearsal should never be an option.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton