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What’s In Your Backstage Bag?

By • Jan 20th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

In theatre, as in life, one cannot prepare for every single possible contingency. Things happen that catch us off guard, and that is the way it goes. But there are certain common things that can happen to an actor which may be minor in and of themselves, but wreak havoc on a performance. Ergo being specifically prepared for those things is prudent, even if they never happen. (Though tech week and opening nights tend to make them all more likely for some reason.)

Some things that I try to always keep on hand in the dressing room or in my bag when in a show:

  • Tissues. Obvious and practical. Plus not every dressing room is going to already have them, believe it or not. A sneezing fit is especially irksome when one is in make up. Maybe make yourself a hero and get enough for everyone in your dressing room.
  • On the subject of sneezing and head colds, I keep anti-histamine with me most of the time in a theatre. Non-drowsy, naturally. Because I never know when a new paint, or a dust covered forgotten set piece that is suddenly moved will rub me the wrong way.
  • Eye drops, for similar reasons, are good things for an actor to have on them. It may seem like a small matter, but the eyes are important features for the sighted actor. Even if the audience cannot see them up close, the other actors on stage can, and puffy or red eyes can be more of a distraction than you might think. Plus, we tend to adjust our faces in subconscious ways when our eyes are bothered, and those adjustments can be seen by the audience.
  • With so many nerves being in various degrees of health during shows, especially opening night, some sort of antacid is not out of order.
  • Cough drops. This is a big one for me. The super potent kind that you can barely stand to have in your mouth. I hate them as much as the next person, but if they are potent, you know they are going to work, and few common ailments are as catastrophic to a performance than a hacking cough. Recommended over cough syrup because of the latter’s tendency to cause drowsiness, and the fact that drops are more convenient. You can pop one in your mouth from anywhere, even back stage.
  • And of course water is highly recommended. In moderation, to whet one’s whistle. You don’t want to be visiting the bathroom between every scene.
  • Moving away from the medicinal, I try to keep several pencils on me. A quick blocking change, or last minute line cut may have to be noted on your script for quick reference during final rehearsals. Or a change made during a performance. (Even though you are off course off book by then.)
  • Speaking of book, having an extra copy isn’t a bad idea either. Just about anyone I know, myself included, keeps their script handy for back stage reference even once they are off book. Just as many people have experienced the exasperating inconvenience of having their script disappear when another actor, who has lost their own script, grabs it, “just for a minute.” Have two copies, in case yours should decide to elope with someone else.

None of these things I have suggested are anything less than obvious. But that is why I suggest them. The items are so mundane, and people feel so confident that they can do without them all because it’s “not a huge thing,” that their complacency becomes their own downfall. Just purchase these items, throw them in your bag, and forget about them. Better to suddenly remember you have something like a cough drop when you need it, than to suddenly realize you don’t and can’t find someone who was smarter than you and came prepared.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs offbook.blogspot.com (for theatre related thoughts) and tooxyz.blogspot.com (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

8 Responses »

  1. As always another wonderful article Ty. I see you have just about covered everything for the personal actor for personal care, just in case. I’ll add one personal item I always carry: Breath Mints. For those “special” moments on stage. And to also be curteous to my fellow actors as we of course are usually confined to small areas and a little fresh breath goes a long way. However for those non personal items I have learned from experience to try and be prepared for anything, including things that go wrong with costumes.
    Safety Pins: They have saved me on more than one occassion when a costume piece has come unhinged so to speak from a costume. Buttons, zippers and so forth can break without warning so it’s a good idea to carry a few safety pins or even a small sewing kit. Never assume the costume people are there to fix a costume problem.

  2. I am going out on a limb by posting this because I will most likely be misunderstood. It has happened before at an opening night ,in answering a question asked the individual judged my reply as conceited.It was anything but, if anything I was being critical of myself. Here goes, I have been reading some of your past writings and I find what you say in regard to actors and their idea of acting is very true.I have just finished a show which was very challenging and it all depended on the actors ability to act.Or the point I am going to try to get to is what you were explaining about honest acting. I do not disagree with your opinion about an actor not staging his performance but there are two areas to an actors talent. One being the ability to use your body and your voice to better express your role. An actor must hone the two so your other acting tool your method can can be well understood.What you were telling your readers about being seen acting is spot on. There is nothing more agonizing for an audience than watching overacting. There is nothing more frustrating than straining to hear or something distracting in the way an actor is carrying himself. The most important thing that an actor must do before anything else is to be believable.He must be as natural on stage as he is off it.He needs to have his voice and his body on autopilot and he needs to be able to use the two at an optimum.The advice that I would give anyone who wants to achieve this goal comes in parts. First of all be honest and know your abilities, work within them. Do not try to make things happen let them happen. Know your character, do not make theatrical choices until you do. Approach your role in steps. Make choices as specific as you can. Do not confuse making choices with making gestures or intonations,choose how you feel at any particular moment and allow yourself to feel it. From there if you are connected body and voice will act naturally. That is where you want to be, in a place that allows you to be natural.You do not have to have years and years of training to achieve this. What you do need is to be able to understand what ever it is your character wants and then to make the audience understand it.The best way, the only way to do this is to be PREPARED. When you walk into rehearsal know your lines. What I have seen and learned to my dismay is there are some actors that think you learn your lines in rehearsal. So what there trying to do is learn there lines and trying to act at the same time. It never fails, actors that do that succeed at neither. Read the play over and over until you understand the play from all the characters point of view. Once you do, learn your lines in your sleep. Once you do, make choices that are very specific in how your character feels and then let your body and your voice respond with utter confidence and authority.Your body and voice are paramount in giving a strong convincing performance, but if you cannot let go and be natural all you will wind up doing is make your audience squirm. Preparation and knowing your material is the best way to arm yourself on stage.To be great at the craft you must train your tool your body to be at it’s best, that is a must. One way to help train that is by carrying yourself off stage as you would on stage always stand tall always speak with distinction never not enunciate when you speak.The key in acting is not to appear, but to be, walk and speak with precision always and it will follow you on stage. I hope that what I have written is not inappropriate and if it is posted I hope it may be of some help in some way. I thank you for some of the insight you have shared and I will look forward to more of your writings.
    DAVID JAMES

  3. Just be careful with the cough drops and antihistimnes. You can dry out your vocal cords and do seriuous damage to them if the show you are in is vocally demanding.

  4. Just be careful with the cough drops and antihistamines. You can dry out your vocal cords and do serious damage to them if the show you are in is vocally demanding.

  5. Thank you for your comments. Mr. Bayles, breath mints are probably a glaring ommission on my part. Good catch, and a good point. Safety pins and other such costume items are also a good suggestion, but in my case I didn’t think of them because I am personally quite terrible with those kind of things. With my hands, I cannot sew. But as a rule, it is a very good idea to have such items.

    And Mr. James makes excellent points as well. Those who do not feel something from the character, and who do not believe in what they are doing, making those choices, are not acting. They are simply aping what someone told them to do.

    I will say that in my experience, however, most community shows don’t have the luxury of having actors totally off book before rehearsal starts. Rehearsal is part of the memorizing process, because unlike in the professional theatre world, casts are far more likely to be doing many other things with their time when not rehearsing. Thankfully, however, with a dedicated cast, this method of rehearsing still has led to some greats hows.

  6. I must say Ty you are spot on again in stating the difficulty of knowing your lines when your life has many demands that are far more pressing then having a career in community or a non professional theater. I am fortunate or rather unfortunate to have much more time to work on the few shows I audition for then most if not all other cast members. I consider myself only average at best on a performing level. It is only the fact that I do have so much time to work on my roles that I am thought believable in the roles I do.Let me if I may try to explain better how I would approach a role with much less preparation time. I most certainly stand by the conviction of not making strong acting choices without first locking into his or her ” motivation” I do not not an believe you can make the right honest character choice until you are 100 percent comfortable without the script in your hand.That is why I mentioned in my first posting about working in within yourself. Learn the show in parts,once you are comfortable with your lines for a particular scene, then decide on what your characters convictions are and build from there. What my point is if you do not know your lines or all of them do not use rehearsals to act the scene use it to help yourself be more familiar with the lines don’t try to do both.I am not an acting teacher nor am I an outstanding actor of any kind. what I do do is pay very close attention. From my observation only which is far from expert,what I seem to notice are the people who perform best on opening night built there character one step at a time rather then trying to act the minute they pick up the script.There characters rarely grow and from opening to closing they struggle with lines.The sad part is you do see some remarkable moments knowing that they have talent just not a good rehearsal process. I have only done two shows in the last ten years and they were community.I have been moved an shocked by how talented my fellow cast members were, I have been humbled and honored to be part of a project.I believe with all heart in always being true an honest in approaching acting never put anything there that isn’t. That includes rehearsal. Please do not think of me as being intolerant, I am fully aware this is only an opinion, one who is hardly an expert but it is one I believe in and one I wished to share. Again I thank you for the chance to comment I hope it is a help to some and if some people feel offended or ill of me again it is only the opinion of another certainly not a definitive truth.
    DAVID JAMES

  7. I don’t think the difference in memorizing lines is not that the professional actors has more time; most professional actors I know have day jobs, and have more then one project going at a time. It’s that professional theater tends to cast a show great deal earlier then community theater, sometimes up to a year out. The show that I start directing in mid February has been cast since September. While community theater tends to cast right before they go into rehearsals. However, David is right in my opinion. You cannot act with the script in your hand. You can play, you can make choices, you can feel your way through and find things, but you can’t truly act. But isn’t that what the rehearsal process is about? To discover things about the story and the character?

    I have always thought that community theater should cast their shows further out form the start of the rehearsal process but I don’t think that will happen.

    And before anyone takes offence, where none is intended. I use the terms professional theater and community theater to describe these two theater communities because those are the common terms for them. I have seen some “community” theater that was as good, and a lot of times better, then some “professional” theater and I have seen some “professional” theater that was not worthy of being put on in the back yard by six year olds.

  8. This is a very good list. Having been both tech & performer, I can suggest only a few items: hair elastics and both hairpins & bobby pins (for anyone with long hair, whether male or female), and at least a few first-aid items, if only bandaids and an antiseptic ointment. I like to have toothbrush & toothpaste in my make-up kit along with the breath mints.