The Breaking Point

Posted by A Quiet Man with a Loud Voice | Labels: , , | Posted On Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 4:26 PM

"Lord what fools these mortals be!"
-a Midsummer Night's Dream III, 2, 115


Near the middle of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream a troupe of actors are rehearsing a play when that merry hobgoblin, Puck, comes along and decides to have some fun. And what can be more fun than screwing with a bunch of presumptuous actors? So Puck changes the lead actor into an ass. The other actors scream and flee and the audience laughs uproariously.

I’m convinced that the spirit of Puck is alive and well – in every single show there is a moment when the shit hits the fan. Lines are forgotten, props break, entrances are missed, the power fails, a light fixture explodes, an audience member suffers a seizure, etc.

Side Note: All of the above have happened to me in various theatre performances I have either performed in, crewed, or watched.

Poor actors blink in the face of Puck’s mischievous prank and the show descends into disaster. Good actors maintain composure and push onwards. And great actors somehow turn the disaster to their advantage.

I’m reminded of a story of a show in Broadway where a famous actress (whose name escapes me – I want to say Carol Burnett) is onstage with a dog. The dog pees right there in front of the audience who bursts into laughter. The entire troupe freezes except for the leading actress who simply walks offstage nonchalantly, returns with a mop, and cleans it up as she continues on with the show.

That’s the very definition of a great actor.

Such incidents are funny, but sometimes Puck’s prank takes the form of something not quite as amusing. And if you’re lucky it happens during the rehearsal process. If you’re not – it happens during the run of the show. A few years ago during Othello – tragedy struck after the first weekend of the performance. One of the lead actor’s family members was very severely injured and the show had to be cancelled.

That’s a very extreme case, but in theatre, people say, anything goes. There’s lots of cases where actors have died, theatres have burned down, and in one very special incident – a president was assassinated.

Sometimes the figurative ‘shit’ that hits the fan is quite small. But it’s still important for the people working on the show to bounce back from it. It can take the form of something as seemingly insignificant as a bad rehearsal. I’ve seen a single bad rehearsal drag an entire cast down to the depths of mediocrity before.
Like last night’s.

The rehearsal stunk. There’s no other way around it. I stunk, he stunk, she stunk, we all stunk.

Dropped lines, missed cues, missing actors, and so on and so forth.

We stunk. And we all knew it. And we deserved every word that came out of our director’s mouth chastising us. We can go, “Well, so-and-so wasn’t there!” – but that’s just an excuse, and a piss-poor one at that. When the shit hits the fan and things get bad – it’s up to those of us onstage to soldier on and make something out of it.

But we didn’t. The energy levels last night was so abysmally low that I felt depressed while I was onstage. I’m not saying everyone is at fault for this – because some certainly did try to maintain the status quo of good rehearsals – but those of us (myself included) that stumbled every which way brought them down with us.

And for that, I am pretty pissed off at myself.

Theatre, more than any other art form, is collaborative. And one person stinking up the process has the potential to drag down the entire cast and crew. Tonight’s rehearsal will be a test of our fortitude – we will see whether or not we can bounce back from the awfulness that was last night’s rehearsal and turn it into something positive.

I sincerely believe we’re up to the task. I believe this because I know that we’re all very passionate individuals and we’re all determined to make the play succeed. So I’m not worried – but I wanted to express the feeling of a bad rehearsal so those people who read this blog (and are not theatre people) realize that the process of putting a show onstage isn’t all sunshine and roses. There’s plenty of bad moments to go around.

It’s how we bounce back from those moments that will end up defining the show.

And like I said, I’m not worried. I know we’re going to be fine. In my experience, Puck never wins. In the end everything gets put back together the way it should be.

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