Those Moments: The Worst Onstage Mishaps
We’ve all been there. Onstage, under the bright lights, with the eyes of a paying audience watching your every move. Daring you to make a mistake… Everything is going perfectly, when suddenly - disaster strikes and suddenly that scene becomes a game of "How much can I recover from what just happened before the audience catches on?" I’ll be taking you through the top 10, in a series of events I like to call ‘Those Moments’
#10: You fluff your lines.
In every actor’s life, there has been a time when those lines just don’t want to come out in the right order… or at all. Only sometimes, it happens in front of a live audience, rather than just in rehearsal - and that’s when things get interesting. It’s worse if it’s a well-known play or musical, because they’ll always be one person who knows everything off by heart and is willing you to make a mistake, just so they can have their smug little victory. I was lucky enough to play witness to one of these little victories, when I first went to see ‘Wicked’ in the West End. During the Cat Fight scene, the audience member behind me decided it would be a great idea to let everyone in her peripherals know that the actress playing Elphaba "totally got that wrong". It’s happened to the best of us… even so, there’s always one!
#9 Your co-star fluffs their lines.
You’re building up to your big moment, the highlight of the play, your favourite line that you know always has the crowd howling with laughter. All you need is that cue line… And…
And nothing. They’re fumbling around, doing some light improv as they try to remember that one line that moves the scene on. You try to help them, drop a few hints by saying a few connecting adjectives… you basically say the bleedin’ line for them, but do they get the jist? No. Gone to the wind. Big moment ruined. Boy, oh, boy, when they turn your mic down…
#8 Set catastrophe
Just one wrong foot in the dance number and the set’s in pieces. Okay, perhaps not pieces (although, if we throwback to my Year Six production… a hoover, tap shoes and projector screen should never be in the same scene together.) But even so, if that chair is out of place by 5cm, you’ll know, or someone will - and goodness knows what kind of catastrophe that could cause. There was a time, very recently, when I actually slipped on a tablecloth, that was carelessly dangling over the side of the table and very nearly nose-dived of the stage. The 800 people watching thought it was hilarious, after all, I was playing a clumsy 21-year old. I was not particularly amused.
#7 Costume Fiasco
Time for a segment I like to refer to as ‘Story Time with Darbus’. Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to be cast as the beautifully eccentric ‘Ms Darbus’ in a local production of ‘High School Musical: Onstage’. She was a lovely character and personally, I thought she had the best costume. However, my skirt - although it was a gorgeous shade of ‘Old Lady Curtain’ and made out of a similar, gorgeous, material - was a little, shall we say, on the large side. It was held to my hips by a staggering TWO safety pins and I was eternally paranoid, during dress rehearsals, that they wouldn’t hold up very well. Luckily, it did… Until the curse of opening night struck hard and painfully. I’m not sure if anyone but wardrobe actually knows of this incident to this day, so this is an interesting anecdote for any of the cast and crew, who might stumble upon this. Essentially, during the detention scene, which involved lots of expressive movement and skirt swishing, I swished juuuust a little too hard and felt the loosening of the material, which slid and threatened to expose my Darbus undies (classy, I know.) I caught the skirt and rolled with it (literally, I rolled the waistband up) - disguising it as a highly eccentric "shimmy" until I had the opportunity to retrieve the pins and get to wardrobe ASAP.
#6 Ehem… cue
When the lights don’t go down in time for that quick change you needed to make, you know you’re in trouble. It’s easily done - lights miss your cue line, music can’t play until the lights go down, so now it’s either an awkward walk off stage or some seriously speedy improv! A large hand gesture and an elaborate "It’s time for my exit" line should do it. Best of British to you all, as we Brits say.
#5 Not-so quick-change
"So, that should give you approximately 15 seconds to run from the piano, to the wings, to change from your pyjamas into a floor-length dress and get back on again. Sound good? Yes, okay!"... said my director to me last October. Oh, school productions are fun, aren’t they?! I had a swat team of three removing t-shirts and zipping up prom dresses, as I desperately tried to get back on the stage in time. It was a hard process - the first time, I left my socks on and people laughed. The second time, I wasn’t in the right position, so my co-star thought I was a no-show and was forced to improvise. I think we nailed it in the end… I think.
#4 Prop Flop
Let’s face it, with a two-hour show, the prop table won’t exactly be easy to navigate. It gets messier and messier throughout the course of the show, as people throw down their props and grab new ones quickly during change-over. So, how are you supposed to remember what you’ll need at what times? Usually, I find it a safer bet to just keep all my props on a shelf in the wings, for my own self-confidence. If I need a prop during a scene, I can always find some way to get hold of it... the problems come when you’re holding a bucket instead of a clipboard, or a large metal stick instead of a pencil. Improvisation - it really is every actor’s best friend.
#3 Lights up!
Okay, transition music over, set changed, ensemble present. Lights up… where’s the lead? Oh no, after that no-so quick change, you didn’t quite make it in time and everyone waits for something to occur. The audience get restless during the pause, but you’re still fumbling with props and clothes in the wings, not to mention you’re on the wrong side of the stage! Trying to figure out how best to make your unplanned entrance, the ensemble panic and do their best to make background talking look really interesting. You burst onto the stage… finally. It’s cool, they’ll kill you later.
#2 Sick Days
Uh-oh! The winter colds are about and you’ve contracted the mother of all diseases. I’m almost 100% sure that stage folk consume more tea than in any other profession. I want to get my hands on a facial sauna, but as luck would have it, I’m a poor student, who can’t afford half a sandwich, let alone a steamer for my face. After endlessly stalking Idina Menzel’s Twitter feed (she is queen of ice, snow and my life), I discovered that she once sneezed during the saddest scene in ‘If/Then’ and I’m sure we’ve all experienced something along these lines to be able to sympathise with her. Sometimes it can’t be helped, like getting the giggles or breaking character at inappropriate moments. Unfortunately, although we have epic jobs, we don’t quite class as superhuman and illness will come around once in a while. Calm yourselves with the knowledge that even Meryl Streep gets colds.
In my opinion, crisps should be banned in theatres. There’s nothing worse than Fantine’s death being rudely interrupted by loud munching of a few cheese and onions. Standing on the stage may seem to be far away, to the watching crowd, but I think sometimes it’s too easy to forget: you’re in the same room. It’s quite easy to hear when an audience member opens a bag loudly and rummages around in the packet, since both actor and the hungry one are under the same roof.… unless it’s an open air theatre.. in which case, you get the idea.
What are your stage blunders? Your pet peeves from the world onstage? Have you had any of ‘Those Moments’
Photo: Westminster College