Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Oops! Now What?

By • May 19th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

I have had to ad-lib several times during the run of my current play. In most of them the mistake was covered reasonably well, and I was complimented by more than one cast mate on my quick thinking, but believe me it is something I would prefer to never have to do. It may help keep an actor sharp, but it also can drain an actor’s energy and increase and actor’s stress twice as fast as when the scene proceeds normally.

Yet it will almost certainly happen to every actor at some point in time. Sometimes due to honest mistakes, and sometimes due to negligence and carelessness. But the results are the same, and it isn’t any fun to experience.

But there are ways to minimize the damage, both to the scene and to one’s self.

Prevention is the best cure as they say, so everyone in the production should be encouraged to stay on their toes, know their job, and be expected to fulfill it.

This means that well before opening night you should know every scene you are in backwards and forwards. You don’t have to memorize all the lines of all the characters, unless that comes easy for you. But be aware of the arc of a scene. Know what has to be revealed, to the audience and to each character, in order for the plot to make sense. That way if something is missed during a performance, you have a mental road map that will guide you back onto safer territory via the path of least resistance.

And what if something does run afoul during a performance?

It depends on the type of mistake to a large extent, but first and foremost, never panic. In front of a live audience it’s the hardest thing in the world to remember, but never panic. Remember that unless it’s Shakespeare or something, the odds of the audience knowing what the exact next line should be are slim to none. Therefore people in the audience are probably unaware that a mistake has taken place. That is unless you telegraph it to them by seizing up, remaining silent, looking off stage, or breaking character. If you stay relaxed, you are less likely to send any of these telegraphs.

Also remember that stage time moves much slower than audience time. So take a single breath, relax your muscles, remember your character, and try to assess the situation.

Now that you are relaxed, in character, and in the midst of a mistake, your first goal is to get the action in the scene as close to what it was supposed to be as possible. You can find the easiest way to do this, because you have already committed to heart the purpose of the scene you are in, and you know where it needs to end up. Consult that mental road map. Deliver a missed line yourself if you can. Or skip to the next available line that is your own. In most cases hearing something that is familiar will help others in the scene pick up get back on track.

Yet sometimes it isn’t a matter of feeding someone a line. Sometimes an actor has been delayed for some reason in arriving on the scene, (one of the hardest things in all of theatre to correct) or some other major snafu has occurred which cannot be covered with a few choice line deliveries. You still shouldn’t panic, but such times do call for a bit of something extra. So remember one thing; Don’t be silent. Provide a scene for the audience to watch. This is where staying in character is crucial, because it might involve you ad-libbing a few lines, or even a conversation with someone else’s character until the mistake is either corrected, of rendered unimportant. Very nerve wracking, but doable if you have done your homework.

Finally, don’t worry about what is happening backstage during such times. Let people back stage such as the stage manager, the crew, and other actors fix things from there. You will have enough to do keeping the audience engaged in what is happening on stage. If such people cannot be counted on at such times, they are not doing their jobs.

But if you can trust your crew and your cast mates, absorb the arc of the scene, stay calm by knowing that the audience probably doesn’t know about the mistake and remembering that stage time is different than real time, you’ll find your way out of most messes.

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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.

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