How Do You Feel When You Screw Up on Stage?

Pacific Conservatory Theatre

Pacific Conservatory Theatre

  • Karli Marie Gundersen

We have ALL been there. There are many times that we’ve been on stage and suddenly forgotten our lines, cracked while belting out a song, tripped and fell, forgotten a prop, missed your cue, I could go on and on. I will tell you that ALL of these things have happened to me.

It is literally the scariest and worst feeling in the world. Think about it: you’re already on stage being someone other than yourself for a while, so naturally, you are already having a somewhat "out of body" experience, but it's incredible because you’re in your happy place. Then, out of NOWHERE, you forget your line altogether. It's like everything goes numb, you can’t feel, you can't think, your body tingles, your throat closes up. Trust me, I know. With that being said, I have come to realize it's all about how you cope with these things WHILE it happens and AFTER it happens.

You may forget a line but lucky enough that one of your cast mates saves you and "reminds" you of your line on stage in a very unique way, maybe by posing it as a question. But what if you are doing a monologue? No one can save you, besides yourself. I have put a lot of thought into this because I remember being in the car on my way home after curtain crying my eyes out with embarrassment multiple times after my incredible screw-ups.

The most important thing is to NOT draw attention to it. DO NOT, no matter how much you need to vent about it, DO NOT bring it up to your friends, audience members, anyone. Take a second alone, in the bathroom or wherever to take a deep breath, and remind yourself that YOU ARE HUMAN, and guess what? You are a human with TALENT. No matter how much you screwed up, you were given the role for a reason, and the more you draw attention to it, the worse you will feel. People may not say what you want to hear, and even if they do, you will still want more reassurance that no one noticed, or that you were still great. Chances are, if you forget a line, or crack really bad on your favorite belty solo, the audience won't remember when the show ends, UNLESS you draw attention to it by bringing it up.

Also, this is a good reason why I think every actor should take some form of improv at one point, because it's always good to have in your back pocket as a Plan B. You can find your way back to the show if you just allow yourself a little time to breathe and improv for a few minutes and next thing you know the light bulb in your head turns on and you're back in the game!

Now for singers who crack during a song, or crack on that ONE note that everyone waits for, chances are, that is WHY you crack. Because you KNOW that note is what everyone is waiting for. Talk about pressure. You psych yourself up so much, and build it up and up and all of a sudden it falls flat. I am not sure about everyone else, but when I perform I am ALWAYS nervous. Like SUPER nervous. I mean it also doesn't help that I have terrible anxiety but I love theatre, I can't help it!

Think about your routine backstage and what you can do to best get "in the zone." I have seen some people backstage who get ready two minutes before they have to be on stage while talking and taking selfies with castmates and then there is me who shows up two hours early, hair and makeup ready, with tea, honey, throat spray, script in hand and pacing backstage not speaking to anyone. Whatever helps you find that calm, zen moment with yourself will help you when its time to step out into the bright lights.

I also would highly recommend working with a voice coach who can help you find the different parts of your voice. In case if you are having a "bad voice day," you can pop into your mix which can kind of sound like a belt. Find ways to cheat a little, without taking away from your performance. Invest the time in yourself, find out what works for you, and perform as MUCH as you can, wherever you can, and yes the nerves will still be there. But isn't that kind of part of the fun? There is SUPER nervous, and there is comfy nervous. Find your comfy nervous. It will change your life as a performer.

I know I am preaching to the choir here because I have yet to find this "comfy nervous," but I will tell you that I AM working on it all the time. I cracked really bad on my solo at rehearsal last night while singing "Kindergarten Boyfriend” in Heathers. The old me would have gone home crying my eyes out and even contemplated giving up theatre, but last night, I shrugged my shoulders and said to myself "Shit happens, I am human," and I actually was OKAY with cracking. Was I happy about it? Hell no, but I am not perfect, and when I see live theatre and performers belting their faces off, and I hear a crack, I don't judge them for the rest of their performing career on that one crack. Sometimes the flaws in peoples voices are actually what people LIKE. But if not, do NOT beat yourself up if you screw up, because there is always tomorrow, and at the end of the day, YOU got the role because you are a freaking STAR. Act like one.

Now my goal is to read this to myself and take my own advice, as we are our own worst critics. But we are all a big theatre community and most importantly, a team. Lift each other up and lift yourself up, stay humble and happy, I promise something good will come of it.