How to Recover From a Bad Show

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  • Courtney Talbott

I spent opening night of my recent show sitting at the back of the auditorium, poised to run backstage and fix problems. It didn’t start out that way. I gave a curtain speech and felt the excited buzz of anticipation as I sat and watched the show begin. And then… the mics didn’t work. And the curtains caught, three times. And a trumpet was left onstage. And two actors who had never had so much as a slip of the tongue in rehearsal froze and forgot their lines. Props weren’t checked, or went missing after being checked.

But that’s what makes theater so special. It is a living, breathing organism. Expecting perfection, or even the same show from one night to the next, is setting yourself up for failure. Still, it’s difficult to see what you spent the past few months of your life on crumbling in front of you. So how do we recover from a bad show? How do we find the fortitude to face the next evening with a smile and not a grimace?

Expect the unexpected. Props will be left onstage. Actors will go up. Set pieces will tip over. If you go in expecting that nothing will go wrong, it’s going to be a rocky ride. Remember that what we do is so much bigger than one show. Even if everything is metaphorically on fire, your kids are looking to you for how to react. If you fall apart, or worse, get angry, they will internalize it. They will take the blame on themselves. They may feel like the theater isn’t where they belong, which would be a great loss, and untrue.

Amidst all the chaos, something wonderful happened. When things were no longer in my hands, the kids took over. Someone casually removed the trumpet during the next scene. The students came around the stuck curtains and continued acting. Scene partners jumped in and redirected the lines without whispering the cues under their breath.

So in between running backstage and worrying about what would happen next, I laughed. I laughed so hard at one point that I had to bite my lip to keep from making noise. Sometimes it’s all you can do. If the choice is to laugh or cry, I’m choosing laugh every time. After the bows, and for the next 24 hours until our next show, I talked to my students. I told them how proud of them I was. I praised them for how they did everything I had taught them, even when they were nervous and it would have been easy to forget. I told them that if they could handle that, the next show would be a piece of cake. And you know what? It was. The following evening was flawless, and the kids were shining up there. No one could have been more pleased than I was, and the students learned valuable lessons that they will use going forward. Besides, it makes for a great story!