The worst time in any production for an actor is the time spent in the wings either waiting for the curtain to go up at the beginning of the play or preparing for his first entrance. It is at times like this that you question why you are here. Why put yourself through this ordeal when you could be at home watching TV or in the pub with a pint?
The answer is of course the buzz that you get from performing in front of an audience, a high which is difficult to explain to somebody who has never set foot on stage. Most actors settle down once they are under way. Nerves are replaced by a calmness as the lines you have struggled so hard to master come out naturally.
Of course there are actors, both professional and amateur, who never truly relax, as if by doing so they will be unable to do justice to their part. Alcohol isn’t the answer. While it can blur the edge of your nervousness it can also create an illusion that you are doing a great job when in fact the opposite is the case.
I suspect that most actors also have bad dreams in which they are on stage performing in a play they have never seen before or playing a part different to the one they have rehearsed. Fortunately this kind of nightmare rarely comes to fruition and we have been lucky in Little Gaddesden to get through most of the plays without undue alarms and excursions.
People do forget their lines from time to time but it is usually possible to cover up. After all most members of the audience are unfamiliar with the play so as long as you keep going nobody will notice the occasion departure from the text. A silence on the other hand is impossible to disguise. This kind of lapse is embarrassing for the audience but even worse for the actors on stage for whom a two second delay feels like an age.
Occasionally you are faced by a crisis of your own making. Some years ago we performed Kindly Leave The Stage, a domestic comedy set in a well-appointed London apartment. What made things difficult, for the cast and the audience, was the fact that it turned into a play within a play.
Backstage two of the male actors have a major falling out and one of them decides to take revenge upon his rival during the actual performance of the play they are in. Some of the actors come out of character and become themselves, performing a very different kind of drama. Unfortunately not all of them realize what is going on, not least a drunken old Shakespeare hack who thinks he hears his cue and walks onto the stage to find he is in a play with which he is wholly unfamiliar.
The avenged hides in a cabin trunk where he remains for about fifteen minutes, occasionally popping up to witness the mayhem going on around him. During the course of this planned confusion one of our own cast left out about six pages of the text.
Sometimes this wouldn’t matter. Actors regroup and move on and nobody is any the wiser. On this occasion however there was events key action within the missing chunk of dialogue which were indispensible. Without those six pages the audience would have been completely lost – they were probably lost anyway so we didn’t want to make things worse. What made it even more nerve-wracking was the fact that half our cast weren’t aware of what was going on so when attempts were made to get back on track they were wary of buying into the process.
I think we got away with it but several of the cast were shaking when they came off stage and a few glasses of wine were consumed that evening after the show to calm us down. Fortunately that sort of thing happens rarely although we did nearly hang one of our number during the dress rehearsal for Habeas Corpus. That’s another story.