- OnStage New York Columnist
A disclaimer before we continue. Theatre companies across the world have different ways of conducting themselves and various levels expect different manners depending on their actor and crew base. We all know this, but just keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive guide to how to behave while working on a show. It is meant to just be a general primer and to open discussion on this particular topic.
Stage Etiquette (accepted behavior during the auditions, rehearsal and run of a production) is one of those great topics for Theatre professionals that is nearly never actually discussed. The rules are just ‘there’ – people are often expected to just know them unless you’re early on in your career. This makes sense, since people in our profession have been immersed in their craft for so long that it’s just second nature. You don’t really need to talk about the rules, it’s just tradition. However this mentality in turn sometimes downplays their importance. They are not there just because it’s accepted practice, but because they make the process smooth and easy for any project.
1.) Stage Manager = God
First of all, if you are an actor and you are lucky enough to get into a professional show then you should already be at least a little humbled. It is beyond me how some people get hired on and then act like they’re the avatar of perfection. But it’s even worse when an actor thinks they know more or better than their stage manager. You do not. I promise that your stage manager does five times the work and less than half the gratitude. If they ask you to jump, then you might as well jump because this show will be nothing without their organizational skills. This extends in part to anyone backstage who get little recognition for the gorgeous sets, lights, costumes and props.
Every time you are late or inconsiderate you are making their job just a little harder and subtracting from time that could be used to make your show that much closer to perfection. Respect your stage manager and the hard work they put into their job. Speaking of being late…
2.) On Time is Late!
You are not an independent contractor in a show. You do not decide your hours. The popular saying amongst actors especially is “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is fired.” Or a variation of that. This is not just a suggestion. If you arrive late for rehearsals then you are holding up any part of the process that requires you in the room and performing. Dionysus forbid that you get to the theatre late for an actual show – at which point you have the potential to set the show-time for the entire performance back. And if you don’t care, go do something that is supposed to take a set amount of time, make sure you have a very limited time slot to do it and see how you feel when it takes longer than it should.
If you know you’re going to be late, then realize that we live in 2017 and you can call or text your Stage Manager and apologize profusely for being an inconvenience. At the very least that gives them a chance to prepare something else or be more productive. Just not knowing where your actors are is the single biggest pet peeve of almost anyone in Theatre. Don’t do it, give yourself time to get there five minutes beforehand and be prepared to work when you get there.
3.) Ad Libs Sink Shows
Some shows do allow for some amount of creating your own lines. And if you’re in the ensemble and get the golden chance to make your own interactions in the background then that’s great. However, I have known only too many people who thought it was perfectly fine to change the words in their script. Sometimes this is because it’s just ‘easier’ to say it one way. Other times the actor in question thinks they have a funny line. Or maybe you’ve gone up on a line and are vamping until you get it back.
This is unacceptable. Sorry, but your brilliant joke is probably only funny to you or your cast-mates. I’m not bashing your sense of humor, but a play is written with the intention of the playwright and the characters say their words because it builds up in an intentional arc. Adding or skipping lines without permission is taking the show’s message away and in turn confuses the upcoming scenes afterwards. And Dionysus help those few actors who think they know Shakespeare enough to ad lib his plays. And then of course you have to think about your cast mates, because changing a line will throw even the most trained actor off because they’re waiting for their cue. If you want to improv, there are shows made expressly for that. Do not play fast and loose with your lines, it is not your place.
4.) Don’t Be a Backseat Director
Don’t be that guy. You have probably run into them already in your theatre career. ‘That guy’ who is an actor and deems himself the coordinator of everything backstage and usually behind the Director’s back. Simply put, it is not your job. From a purely selfish viewpoint you’re only making more work for yourself. From a more practical standing… You are confusing the direction of your performance. Don’t get me wrong, I have been on shows where the director is inexperienced and an actor steps up to help. Even then, however, the performer in question needs to run anything and everything past their Director. The only time this is acceptable on a limited basis is when another actor approaches you and asks for an opinion on their character.
Even then, you absolutely cannot tell them how to play their role.
Forget that it isn’t your job, you’re potentially derailing a good performance of a fellow actor. The director chose that actor and is pointing them towards a specific direction for a reason – one that probably reads better from the audience because they are not up onstage with you. It does not matter how it looks to you, you are immersed in the scene and can only see so much. Then there are those that think they can tell the stage crew what to do – with which I will once again point you to #1 on this list.
5.) Treat Every Show Like Broadway
I do not care if you are performing in the next Hamilton on the biggest stage ever built with the most astounding sets and costumes, or if you’re in a storefront community theatre that only three people you know will ever see. You have given a time commitment to a show and you are dedicating your time to an art form that requires everyone’s teamwork to breathe life into. Even if you are not terribly impressed by the show… someone in the process is paying for the space, devoting time and effort to the herculean task of herding actors, and believes that your performance in this show is worth showing the world. Treat every show like it’s the biggest opportunity you’ve ever received. The world doesn’t care if you’ve appeared in a movie once and you have an ego about it – they are going to judge you by the work you poured into your craft and the love you gave it.
Don’t diminish someone else’s faith in Theatre because it’s a smaller show. You are better than that.
6.) Respect the Superstitions
Yes. The “M” word is a silly myth. But that does not mean it won’t affect the show. Not necessarily because of any real curse, but instead because it sets many actors on edge. Some people really believe in the superstitions that come into a theatre space and disrespecting their views on those various curses can dangerously throw them off. Saying ‘Good luck!’ will always be bad luck because that’s how we in the Theatre world see it and can even subconsciously mix doubt in. If it has the potential to derail an otherwise good show, why would you joke about it?
You don’t have to believe in them, you just have to keep in mind that some people do and you can argue about it at the Cast Party.
7.) Know Your Lines!
Okay, you’ve got a great mind for memorization. You’re an actor and in the past you have had other show lines down solid. So maybe you think you can relax on this one, slow down a bit and take it easy memorizing it. Prepare to be hated by your scene partners in this case because you’re being a jerk. It is a good rule of thumb that you need to be at least working memorized the day after you block the scene. You can always call for line after that if you have to, but if you’re carrying your script with you into each scene then you are not acting. You’re reading. The quicker you get that script out of your hands and can start immersing yourself in the character, the better. Plus you’re making everyone’s jobs that much easier.
8.) Quiet Backstage!
Pretty simple. Quiet backstage, project your voice onstage. Especially if you’re in a smaller production that can’t afford great mics. You are gambling every time you talk backstage because your mic could be hot and everyone might hear you damning that one door that keeps sticking shut on stage left. Anything you have to say can wait until after the show. If you have to talk, cover your mic and whisper. The only thing the audience ever needs to hear is what the characters onstage are saying.
Do you have something you would like to discuss or add to this list? As stated above it is not a definitive list of do’s and do not’s. Just remember that a stage production is one massive collaboration. You and everyone else is one cog in the machine. So let us know in the comments about your thoughts on other Theatrical courtesies that you think get overlooked too often. And break legs out there, everyone!
Photo: Pioneer Theatre Guild, Myra Klarman