Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Defensive Driving On Stage

By • Mar 10th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

You know what defensive driving is; proceeding with caution when behind the wheel and being prepared for the event that the other driver(s) are not going to do what is expected of them. We don’t assume that they are certainly going to do the wrong thing, because then we would be distracted. But we try to minimize any shock we might experience should the unsafe, surprising, or just plain stupid choice of another driver on the road confront us.

I am a defensive driver. And I am also a “defensive actor,” so to speak.

No, the metaphor is not perfect. But it is similar enough to guide us during our time on stage.

As with driving, there are ways to be prepared for goofs. Ones that either we ourselves are guilty of, or ones that other people may perpetrate. And while we cannot predict every possible scenario, we can focus in on the things that are most likely to be problematic, and prepare in our minds for that contingency, should it arise.

How do we know what to prepare for?

Ask yourself if there is a specific scene or a specific segment of a scene that gives you or someone else a problem more often than not. Common culprits are entrances and exits of large groups of people, small stunts, handling of complicated props, specific sound/light cues from the booth, working with animals/children, and consumption of food or drink. These are tricky for all actors.

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture. Each production is different, so each list of potential problems will be different. Identify such for your production.

Then, when you are far from the pressure of rehearsing, quiet your mind and consider each problem area so you can determine how you will need to respond on stage should the need arise. To determine your action, (or in this case REaction) ask yourself the following things about each problem:

  1. What goal, if any, of the scene is the problem likely to derail if it occurs?
  2. What, if anything can I do to prevent the problem from happening if it begins?
  3. If the problem does occur anyway, how can I do my job in spite of it?
  4. What, if anything can I do on the fly that will point the scene right back in the direction it was headed before the problem occurred?

The 4th question I think is the most important, and the one you should master if you can master no others. Getting the unfolding action headed back towards what the scene is intended to reveal. Audiences are forgiving, and in fact don’t often notice a snafu very easily. If you can establish the same amount of information by the end of the scene despite the error, chances are it won’t even affect the audience’s enjoyment of the play. You may have to repeat a line, or make one up, or cue someone subtly. But you can get back to where you need to be.

Thinking like this won’t guarantee you a save. But as with all things in theatre the more prepared you are, the more likely things will fall into place for you. Even once they have started to briefly fall apart.

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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 (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

3 Responses »

  1. I recently ran props for The Wizard of Oz for a high school production, and the hourglass I created broke in half (where the two bottles joined together) during a rehearsal. I asked the actress playing the witch what she’d do if that happened during a show. She didn’t know, so I suggested rehashing her line (as Miss Gulch) from earlier in the play “That’s the last time I buy an hourglass from a charity bazaar.” Mike

  2. I sure ther are hundreds of incidents that can be related to this article. here is my take. During our run of Dearly departed, we had one actor who started developing a “frog” voice because of all the yelling he had to do in character. He would sometimes start to cough and have difficulty getting his lines out particularly during the ending funeral scene. Another actor came up with a plan on his own. The next time our hero started to lose his voice, in charcter the other actor handed our hero a “flask” to take a swig from. The blast of cool water in the flask was just what the actor needed to keep his voice. Keep up the great articles Ty, love em all.

  3. I hear actors talk about problems like this all the time. As a director when an actor comes up to me makes the statement “Im having a problem with (filll in the blank…entrance…food… drinking…a prop>) I tell them just deal with it it the way you would in real life. You dont go through life thinking ahead that about every move you make or item you interact with. Just deal with it in a honest and true fashion and the audience will pick up on that. Its when every small little interaction with props , entrances food and drinking is prethought out that we catch the actor acting becuase he is so in his head thinking about those problems in stead of just listening to his fellow actors and trying to achive a simple goal.