When Things Go Wrong, As They Sometimes Will

When I started acting, back in college, my performances were as meticulously crafted as you can imagine. I’d use multiple-colored highlighters to mark my lines, in order to map out the emotional beats. I’d spend hours fine tuning the specific voices and mannerisms I’d use for walk-on parts. I calibrated every moment I had on stage, trying to achieve what I hoped would be perfection, trying above all to make sure that nothing went wrong. While the kind of preliminary work I was doing is of course crucial, there was a critical lesson I still had to learn – how to leave it all behind when the need arose, how to truly be spontaneous on stage while still maintaining the discipline of performance. How to embrace it when things went wrong.

The breakthrough for me came a few years after I graduated. I was playing a rare leading role for me, the title role in a play called Bullshot Crummond, an obscure theatre's revivl of an obscure spoof of an even more obscure series of veddy veddy British spy movies of the 1930s and 40s featuring the character Bulldog Drummond (Turner Classic Movies will show some once in a very great while). The central gag of the show is that the wide panorama of an espionage thriller is being presented with the most comically bare-bones theatrical conventions possible; we pushed this conceit to the edge of disaster with the flimsiest, most rickety sets imaginable, and wild fight choreography on a stage about the third the size of my living room. My cast members would share their anxieties about some particularly difficult in one of their scenes, and I could only laugh, because every single scene I was in had something ridiculously difficult, and there was literally not one minute of that show in which something wasn’t on the verge of going cataclysmically wrong.

I’m not sure of the precise moment when it happened, but somewhere in the course of that unheralded little run, a feeling of Zen calm descended over me. Of course something was going to go wrong, there wasn’t anything that I or anybody else could do to stave off disaster, so the only option was to embrace the chaos. Find ways to use it. If I knew my character and the story I was telling – and I assure you, Gentle Reader, I did – then anything unforeseen could be incorporated into the performance, as necessary. I like to think I got good at this, over the course of that run. It even became a twisted game – can you come up with the suitable ad-lib to cover when the crucial props are misplaced, or when the wooden flat depicting the “woods” falls down?* When I realized that I was able to play this game, I also realized that, under the right circumstances, potential disaster can be fun. And at the very least, it can be absorbed into the show so that nobody in the audience is the wiser.

I mention all this because yesterday was the opening performance of Day of Absence, which you may have noted has been something I’ve been looking forward to, in which I’ve placed a great deal of emotional investment. The sort of performance that I desperately would want to be perfect. But it’s a difficult text, knotty and densely packed, and we had a showcase production’s ridiculously truncated rehearsal period to master it. There were line flubs and gaffes, scenes that could have gone off the rails – but didn’t. The show was still a raucous success, in large part because none of the line snafus derailed the forward motion of the play. And where those snafus happened within earshot of me, I’m proud to say I was able to help fix them. Hell, it was fun to fix them.

Of course, I hope this doesn’t happen again. I do want this show to be as close to perfect as we can get it. Plus, the whole point of acquiring the skill set I describe above lies in making you never have to use it. Which is another lesson I didn’t learn until I was out of college.

*The answer, of course, is “Look! An uprooted tree!”

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