Theater audiences are wonderful.
But theater audiences are easily distract – SQUIRREL.
They are also easily worried.
The thing is, as a performer, you need to be aware of anything that might pull your audience out of the show.
A costume malfunction (it becomes a show about that unzipped fly);
Trip hazards (it becomes a show about who will slip on that water on the stage);
A set problem (a show about whether or not that flat is going to fall and who will it fall on);
As a performer, you want to keep the audience feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that all is going according to plan on the stage.
So when something happens onstage, during a performance, you need to think about what would your character normally do to correct the problem?
First, you have to decide if the problem exists in your character’s universe –
If a wall is about to fall, that is not something that would naturally exist in your character’s universe. Not much you can do – except tell someone else when you get off stage and hope the situation can be fixed quickly and unobtrusively.
Second, can your character, in character, correct the problem without having to leave the stage/action?
You break a glass or spill some water. If you have a broom or something to sop up the water onstage with you and it would be in character to clean up the mess – you might do the clean up in aisle 5. But if your character is some very rich person, a servant would clean it up – not you. And if you can’t clean it up, when you exit, you tell someone (preferably your stage manager or deck chief, so the problem can be fixed). You might also need to adjust blocking while the mess is onstage – as in life in general, avoid the wet spots!
If you can’t pick something up – maybe you can kick it off stage or at least kick it to where it is no longer in the middle of the onstage action.
Another, less obvious, part of this whole concept is not overthinking a bit of action.
You may not like how some moment is staged for you, but unless the scene is about you and/or the moment is pivotal to the scene and/or your character development, you may just have to live with it. Your job, as an actor, is to take that moment and make it work within your character’s life – especially, if this or your character are not important at that moment.
I had to be reminded of this during A New Brain.
Our extraordinary choreographer, Gary Ferguson, had staged a physical altercation between my character (Mom) and Mom’s (soon to be ex) husband. The moment was in the middle of a song.
I was really bothered by it, because I felt it looked like I was the sole aggressor and I felt the husband should fight back a little.
Gary and our director Kevin Kirby kept telling me that no, it looked really bad and would be distracting and upsetting to the audience if the husband fought back.
Now, if I had been in my right mind, I would have shut up and taken their word for it because (a) they could actually see the moment from the audience’s perspective; (b) I know that I am lousy at judging how things look from the audience’s perspective; and (c) I know that these people would not steer me wrong.
But for some reason, I was like a dog growling over an old bone. I just couldn’t get past it – until Gary reminded me – it’s just a tiny moment in one song, and while the song is kind of about me and my husband, it’s really about our son, Gordon and his perspective.
In other words, Terri, sometimes it’s not ALL about you.
So, it’s a good rule of thumb when something bugs you, stop and think – “is this a show about …”, and if your answer is “no”. Move on.
Ditto, when something happens onstage, think – is this something my character would and can do something about? If yes, do what you would and can. If not, when you get offstage, explain the issue and leave it to those whose job it is to deal with the problem and let them worry about it.
As in life, you will find most of the problems should go into the BIG box in your head marked “not my problem.”