Acting Under the Influence: Comedy or Tragedy?

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  • Tony Targan

Actors have a long association with alcohol.  There are many famous actors with a history of alcohol abuse, including Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Errol Flynn, and Humphrey Bogart, to name just a few.  Gerard Depardieu once famously claimed that he could drink up to 14 bottles of wine a day!  But famous actors often live by a different set of rules.  I wondered how community theater or regional actors would answer the question: Have you ever rehearsed or performed on stage while "under the influence"?

Mainly, I was interested in motivations.  Why did people drink before or during a show?  How did it affect their performance, for better or worse?  Did other actors or directors know or care?   Personally, for me, the adrenaline I get from acting in front of a live audience is better than any drug.  I can’t imagine needing any more stimulation.  Some theaters have their own traditions – an opening night toast, a passed flask at intermission – and I have played along with that.  But for the purposes of this article, I’m focused on actors who were actually impaired on stage.  (For that reason, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

“Rachel” told me that she first performed Midsummer's Night Dream when she was 21.  In her words: “In the forest scene where both men are enchanted to fall in love with me, the director wanted the men very sexually amorous. I had a hard time with this scene, being younger and less experienced. One day, during break, we had some drinks. Unintentionally, I was rather tipsy. That day the scene went better and the director said she ‘didn't care what we had done, but whatever it was, keep doing it because the scene was so perfect.’ So, every day at intermission, they gave me a bottle of juice mixed with alcohol and I drank it. It never interfered with my ability to say my lines, and it made me looser on stage. … In my older, wiser days I would never do that; I have techniques and abilities to get myself where I need to be, safely.  I also would now have no problem letting a director know I was uncomfortable and ask for help.”   In fact, I have seen Rachel perform a topless scene, and she appeared totally at ease and had no more need for “liquid courage.”

“Jim” was on stage in a bar scene when a fight broke out. During the fight, “my character grabbed a bottle of tequila and took some deep swigs for free. One night, the bottle was filled with vodka. So I ended up getting a triple shot.  The very next scene was a dance number. I had no idea that the bottle had been tampered with. Given the heat of the spotlights and dancing in costume, it was a disorienting experience, but made for a fun story.”  Similarly, “Mike” never eats prior to a performance but he “indulged in a glass of wine during intermission. Not a good idea! Although I got through the performance, I almost lost my balance taking bows.”  Which was the last time Mike ever drank during a show.

“Frank” admitted to me – years after the fact – that he and “Lila” occasionally were high on pot during performances of a show that I directed!  (Had I known at the time, I would have been very upset, but it would have been too late to fire them.)  He explained that, “It’s not something you want to try unless you’ve rehearsed that way.”  Frankly, I had no idea they were high at the time, and it did not visibly affect their performances.  Was I just naïve not to notice?   What would you do if you noticed that another actor is impaired?   “Steve” sees no distinction between the stage and any other workplace:  “In a hardworking environment like a film set or a theatre, where you’re in close contact with people, in cramped quarters, a drinker is obvious. You can smell it. It’s atrocious. If I found someone was drunk on my set, I’d send them home. And most likely they would be fired. I’d be clear from the start that no one should arrive at work intoxicated, and drinking or etc. on the job would be grounds for removal. It’s not at all common. Drugs and alcohol simply don’t belong in a workplace.”

So, while this is far from a scientific survey, my anecdotal evidence suggests that acting and alcohol generally don’t mix.   And I’ll drink to that … after the show!

 

Tony Targan is an aspiring playwright whose short plays have appeared in Midwest regional and community theaters.  He is also a director and actor in southeast Michigan community theater, mostly with the Farmington Players Barn Theater.  By day, Tony works as a technology attorney in Detroit.