- OnStage New York Columnist
We looked at your comments and incorporated them into a part two of things you should definitely know when working on a theatrical production! Once again, this is not an exhaustive list and different theatres have different ways of doing business so keep that in mind as we present another eight ways to respect Stage Etiquette and traditions!
1.) DON’T TOUCH THE DAMN PROPS!
Hands down one of the most annoying ways to give everyone a heart attack mid-show is to move the already set props. If you are in the middle of a quick-change, or maybe you’re even just waiting in the wings, and you cannot find the essential prop that you need to enter with… then there should be no repercussions for the ensuing hissy fit. While I do try to emphasize how humble actors should be, do keep in mind that acting is not ‘easy’. It requires an immense amount of focus and herculean effort to get on stage and immerse yourself in front of thousands of people. While there are many different ways to screw up an actor’s performance, misplacing their prop is the worst way. And it can ruin an entire show.
Don’t believe me? What if a knife is required for a death scene and all of the sudden there is no knife. The scene does not work and even if, Dionysus willing, the actors are able to stumble through an improvised fix, then the scene is still probably going to look awkward. Even if you are just playing with a prop there’s a chance it will get broken. Then you’re making a bunch of work for the Props Master. It’s incredibly rude to touch a prop that is not yours. Don’t do it.
2.) Respect the Designers
This one is simple. Don’t change your costume. No matter how much you loathe that ridiculous outfit you have to don each night (and there are some bad costume designs out there, they aren’t all gorgeous and perfect) then you have no right to add or subtract from that costume. You are wearing someone’s reputation on stage and it was not made lightly. The decision to make that costume what it is was made deliberately and with intent. Maybe it is vital to the look of the show, maybe it’s trivial. Either way, you as a performer (or even as a costumer) do not get to change the designer’s original look.
The same goes for make-up. Yes, I am sure that you look absolutely cute with a different hue of lipstick. You can wear it after the show. Everything that gets put on you as an actor is meant to help build metaphors and stories and subplots. Red lipstick might tie in to the character’s passion/lust. Glittery blush might make you look as magical as the character is supposed to be. That is for the designer to decide, not you. As someone said in the comments: Ad libbing your costume can be just as annoying as ad libbing your lines.
3.) Save the Party for the Cast Party
It’s great that you’re excited to take part in the glorious tradition of stage performance. However, I highly suggest that you leave the partying for after the show/rehearsal. While I do not advocate/approve of drug use or drinking (I personally enjoy drinking quite a bit, in fact), there is a time and place for it. Do not come to rehearsal drunk or high. I have worked with some companies where it’s actually tradition to take a shot before show-time to calm the nerves. That is fine to a degree, but the moment you go an inch beyond your limit then everyone is going to know. It does not improve your performance, so why go overboard? It’s unprofessional, and more importantly it can get you fired for showing up to a rehearsal sloshed. Instantly. Don’t throw away all your hard work because you can’t control yourself. Ergo, don’t do something in Theatre you wouldn’t do in any other professional job.
In fact, getting fired for that is going to put a black mark on your reputation. Remember that the Theatre world, even though world-wide, is incredibly small. Even one person talking about how “So-and-so showed up, completely out of it, falling over… It was embarrassing” can royally smash your chances at future work. People in Theatre talk. And they talk a lot.
Speaking of which…
4.) Keep the Drama On the Stage
This one should go without saying, but it will probably always happen regardless. Stop the gossip. It is absurd (almost to the point of being funny) how catty grown adults in costumes playing make-believe can be. While it evaporates pretty handily in the professional workplace, it still happens.
Obviously people don’t like each other on occasion. Sometimes it’s just a matter of people not really getting along because of differences in personality. Sometimes it’s… messy – these people were in a relationship but someone cheated and now they have to work on a show together, or these two got into a physical fight over a heated political debate once, someone has an ego and another person just will not take it. The myriad reasons for unfortunate drama is endless, but it all boils down to a few hostile words whispered between scenes. This will always come to a head and usually at the worst possible time. If you do not like someone then keep your mouth shut and put your nose to the grindstone. Amazingly, you don’t have to interact with that person outside of any scene you have together. So don’t cause trouble and be professional. Actors are naturally empathetic and everyone can get really worked up about a feud going on backstage. Not really dealing with a single person is workable. Having everyone give everyone else the cold shoulder makes a show literally impossible. Keep things as civil as possible so you and your cast-mates can work.
On a semi-related note…
5.) Theatre Is Not Tinder!
I am not going to dwell for very long on this rule because I have already written an entire article on the potential dangers of ‘showmances’ (shameless plug). Suffice to say, we theatre-folk are very physical and usually loving people. While it makes a lot of sense that people are going to hook up with people they meet in a production, that’s not why we’re here. Some people will inevitably do it anyway, but it’s a pretty safe bet that feelings are going to get hurt. Try to avoid.
6.) Notes are NOT Personal Attacks
So I won’t lie, taking notes can suck. Especially depending on who’s giving them. Hopefully the Director has tact – sometimes there’s just no time to be nice about it. It can be emotionally difficult for actors to divorce notes completely from feelings. Receiving a note after rehearsal can be disheartening simply because you’ve thrown so much of your love into your role. Sometimes it’s even harder not getting any notes at all. Many of us might immediately snap to the thought process of “Oh. Oh no. They weren’t even paying attention to me. I’ve made an average performance.”
That being said, always remember that no notes are usually good and that receiving feedback of any kind is just a chance to push your performance to new heights. Just remember that it is incredibly rare that notes are meant for anything other than making a more perfect show. You are in Theatre – that means you are always learning. It also means that there is rarely time to dance around something that’s wrong with a performance. Take the note with grace and dignity. You will be richly rewarded for the collaboration with a better show.
7.) Watch Where You Walk!
This one was brought up multiple times in different context so I’m just going to clump them all together. Please be careful about where you walk in relationship to any and all curtains in a Theatre. The curtains do not care whether you’re cast, crew or SM, they will still wave like there’s a small earthquake backstage. It’s not going to look like it from your perspective, but it’s incredibly distracting from the audience. Just moving too close to it will be distracting – but touching the curtains during a show is going to look awful.
Then there is the old saying of “If you see the audience, they can see you.” Pretty self-explanatory. If you are in a spot where you can view the audience, chances are there is someone staring you down from the crowd. There are usually enough people in a seating area that there are eyes on every inch of the stage at all times. So a good rule of thumb is to remember that they will be looking if you draw even an iota of attention away from the action. Be careful where you stand, and don’t just stand there staring out from one of the wings unless you are one hundred percent sure no one is going to see you.
Also, be aware of your surroundings before the start of a show. Depending on the space you’re performing in and what show you’re in there can be a ton of wires and maybe even cramped areas for costumes, props, set pieces, and other equipment. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has never been involved with a performance where at some point something crashed backstage. Just be conscious of where you are operating and how to safely navigate it. For your own safety and for the sake of the show. A side-note for this one as well, know where the dressers and exits are going to be taking place. Dionysus only knows how many stories there are of amateur performers chilling out in an area waiting to go on… and then get in the way when another actor rushes off for a quick-change, or even just charges off-stage because that’s the blocking.
8.) Write Everything Down
This one is for everyone. Not just actors, but for crew members and anyone who needs to know when and where things are happening throughout a show. Actors in particular can have a lot of faith in their own memory (rightfully so, they are capable of memorizing thousands of lines). However if the case comes up where someone questions when/where/how the blocking made it there you can always have a physical note of it. Furthermore, it helps the director acknowledge that you’re doing your job. If you are sitting there nodding, that is not incredibly reassuring to them and they might stress that you won’t remember it. Remember, a lot is weighing on their shoulders for this show – whether it’s the producers breathing down their neck, or even just that they’re passionate about their work. Write everything you get concerning the show down, even if it’s just a small note that only you can read. It’s just insurance and it only costs a few seconds of scribbling.
So that is another venture into a primer of Stage Etiquette! We may write another thanks to suggestions from you – the wonderful followers of On Stage, who constantly show us the absolute love of the Theatre community on a daily basis. Potentially a small guide for parents of youth performers, who I would also like to thank for supporting their children in the arts. Dionysus only knows that many of us were not given a similar chance.
If you would like to add to this list or a future one please comment and discuss! We love seeing you guys talk about the profession we all love so much. Break legs out there, folks!
Photo: William Peace University