When Onstage Chemistry is Technically Perfect but Something’s Missing

Liz Chirico

There’s a line from the Cutting Edge (one of the greatest movies ever) about Kate and Doug’s performance at Nationals. Technically there was nothing wrong but there was something off. That something is chemistry. It happens in figure skating and it happens on stage. It doesn’t matter how well you know your lines, how smoothly the light cues run, if there’s no chemistry why bother.

I’ve been on both sides of the equation. As an audience member watching and as an actor performing. Chemistry is one of those things that either happens or it doesn’t. It can’t be forced. It can be helped along though and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, the audience perspective.

You watch the show and think well… it’s good. Everyone’s hitting their notes, moving well, there’s not really anything to complain about. Except there is. Because you’re bored and losing interest, you don’t necessarily care if the leads end up together or if good triumphs over evil. That’s not a good feeling to have as an audience member. You start to wonder if you’re a theater snob. How you can dislike something (especially if friends are involved in the production) that’s technically perfect. It’s because there’s no chemistry. There’s no sense of team, of unity. It feels everyone is out for themselves to grab their 15 min in the spotlight. While I’m not begrudging anyone their moment it should never come at the expense of the overall show.

There’s a reason for the phrase “greater than the sum of its parts”. The show is only as good as everyone working together from the ensemble on stage to the group backstage. If each actor focuses only on their part, they may be good but it won’t be great. Because, unless it’s a one-person show nothing exists in a vacuum. Characters are meant to interact with each other, to have relationships with each other. That means the actor needs to keep in mind not only what they say but what others say and how everything fits together in the overall concept.

That’s the biggest thing to keep in mind as an actor, the overall show. It’s difficult absolutely. As an actor, we only see our part, our lines, maybe a little bit of the person/people interacting with us at each specific moment. But that’s where the production team is needed. They are in the unique position to see what each person is doing and how everything fits together. Without the feedback of the production team be it music director, choreographer and/or stage director providing feedback, each actor is in their own world. As an actor, we rely on the production teams notes to help shape what we’re doing and provide the best performance for us and the best performance needed for the overall show.

Now onto the quandary of helping chemistry along. Usually, this is done, forced sometimes, at the beginning of the rehearsal process. With ice-breakers, games, improv exercises, character analysis, all of the above- each company and director has their own favorites. And that helps bring together this group of people from vastly different walks of life who may/may not know each other outside the rehearsal room. As opening night approaches and rehearsals become longer and more frequent, a different bonding process takes place. The bonding over “this is my 10th cup of coffee today but I need it to keep going” happens. And that brings folks together more organically in a way that group exercises and games can’t. Because that’s when (if they haven’t already) the cast realizes they’re in this big, beautiful thing together. And together is the only way to make something great.

When it’s there, it’s a marvelous thing to be a part of and to behold as an audience member. If it’s not there as an actor you should do whatever you can to make some magic happen. Because from the audience perspective without that chemistry it’s just not worth it.

Photo:  Lyric Opera