And even if the fun is lacking in some of the tasks we have to accomplish in putting on a play, the fun and joy of a job well done with resultant audience appreciation or ovation is unparalleled. Even theatrical mistakes provide aged thespians like me with hours of storytelling fun.
When I was in university, the final fight scene between the Scottish king (we won’t say his name here; I’ll tell you why later) and Macduff was a thrill for the audience but even more for us, the cast, because we knew something they didn’t.
The final fight with huge broadswords between the Scottish king and his nemesis had been meticulously rehearsed, with every move precisely staged and practised to perfection. In early rehearsals they practised with a slow drum beat that was sped up incrementally to reach a dizzying tempo. The end result was a breathtaking sword fight with sparks flying off the metal swords that drew applause night after night.
However, what we in the cast and crew knew that most of the audience didn’t was that both of the actors were blind as bats without their glasses, and neither of them wore contacts. I suppose they evolved bat-like radar for the performance because the fight went off without a hitch, except for one time…
The swords were awesome props, with shiny silver blades and golden, intricately molded hilts. Each of them had a round, golden ball on the end of the hilt which was made from a child’s red rubber ball.
During the gala show, the final dress rehearsal with an invited audience and the press in attendance, in the midst of the fight, one of the balls came off and bounced, exactly like a rubber ball, across the stage. The audience roared with laughter, but our intrepid actors never missed a beat and continued as if nothing had happened.
The following is a movie rather than a theatre anecdote, but it involves one of the greatest stage actors of all time, Sir Laurence Olivier. When he and the young Dustin Hoffmann were filming Marathon Man, Dustin, the dyed-in-the-wool method actor, decided not to sleep for three nights so he could play the scene convincingly where his character had been awake for 72 hours. When he could not stay awake or remember his lines, Sir Laurence, the quintessential classical actor, patted him on the shoulder, saying, “Dusty, next time try acting.”
Before being catapulted to stardom with the movie Alfie, Michael Caine spent years acting onstage. In rehearsal for a play, in a scene in which Michael had no lines, the director stopped everything and said, “Michael, what are you doing?”
“Nothing,” the young actor replied. “I don’t have a line for three pages.”
“Of course, you do!”
“No, I really don’t.”
“You have wonderful, brilliant answers and observations running through your head, and then you choose not to say them.”
I always tell my students this to teach them that no actor onstage ever has a moment of doing nothing, even if he or she is not speaking.
Finally, most theatres of more than a few decades old have the reputation among the theatre crowd of being haunted. Our university theatre was no exception. It was rumoured that there were two ghosts that inhabited it: one a student actress who died in a car crash during her university career and was believed to inhabit the tunnel going from stage left to stage right; and the other an electrician who fell from the 40-foot high grid to his death. I never encountered the actress – although I wasted no time getting from one end of that tunnel to the other in case she was there – but I did have a week-long relationship with the electrician.
I operated the dimmer board for the lights for one of our thesis plays. The lighting/sound booth hung from the grid over the audience, and it was reached by crossing a long, spooky, dark catwalk directly over the audience and then stepping down into the booth. Fortunately, I shared the light booth with the sound crew but only for Act One; there were no sound cues in Act Two so then I was left alone.
During the first technical rehearsal, I started to hear breathing, footsteps and the sound of something like wood blocks being dropped in the dark shadows around the catwalk where no one could possibly be walking. Let me tell you, my hair stood on end the first time I started to hear those sounds, but I decided, “Well, we’re going to be together for a week, so I’ll just make friends.” From then on, Mr Electrician and I had a nightly rendezvous – him breathing, walking and dropping things, and me whispering niceties to him. The footsteps would stop when I talked and start again when I was quiet and busy with light cues.
I always wondered if this really happened or if it was just a product of my imagination until Facebook connected me with many of my theatre friends from those days. We had a series of discussions about our shared experiences, and one time someone asked if anyone had any ghost stories. I told them about my encounter. One of the ladies who had acted in that very play retorted, “We were so mad at you for walking around and dropping things every night in Act Two!” My hair stood on end all over again!
The theatre, being a rich world of its own, is full of incredible, funny and strange stories, and I’ll conclude with the Scottish king. The title and main character of that Shakespeare play is believed to bring bad luck and disaster, even death, if said outside an actual rehearsal or performance of the same. Those who say it must run around the theatre seven times to prevent catastrophe. I dare you. Go ahead. Say it, but not around me.