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"Mistakes" on stage

Like it or not, the United States education system values being efficient over being effective, product over process. That bleeds into theater education. Our actors, therefore, believe more in The Plan than in the moment. They give their power of intuition over to “sticking with the plan” and “getting it right” rather than act with integrity to the character and the present moment, making their performance at best, distant, and at worst, false.

A former student of mine, John Doe, accidentally threw his scepter during a song. The scepter slipped from his fingers and flew into the audience. It slipped because he was retreating into his body from nervousness (lack of belief), so he lacked assurance in his extremities. You could see that he was tight in his chest, absent from his limbs, all his focus on his voice. And his voice was great. But when the scepter slipped, his eyes widened with fear and followed the scepter into the audience. In the tiniest of moments, we could see he was checking that he didn’t hurt anybody, he made a slight face of “oops” and kept going. To his credit, this was more than just outright ignoring and denying the moment, so he got a light laugh. This allowed for a cathartic release in the audience, but, since we went right back to acting as if it never happened, it turned into just a polite, “Oh, man! That sucks!” laugh. So we went right to feeling tense, watching him pretend it never happened, pretend that he never had a scepter, feeling a little sorry for him. I hoped for some glimmer of joy, of laughing at the moment, himself, of making it fun, of cirlcing back to what had happened, but he went on autopilot. Not bad, but…not really anything.

What I wanted to happen: When the scepter flew from his fingers, that he motion for the music to stop, chastise the servant (who was standing behind him) for allowing such a thing to happen, motion for the servant to collect the scepter and return it to him, slap the wrist of the servant, apologize for his servant’s incompetence to the audience, then resume the song. He’s the king, after all. He is the highest of statuses! He can do whatever he wants and blame whomever he wants!

But it doesn’t occur to people to stop the show. In the moment, you are internally shrinking, apologizing to everyone that you made a mistake; everyone—the other people on stage, the people involved with the show, the audience, anyone who helped you prepare, everyone who ever believed in you, your younger self for even trying, your future self for being a failure.

Why? Why is it so ingrained in us that, if it doesn’t go according to plan, that you should shrink into non-existence, shrink so much that everyone else can keep doing the plan that was agreed upon, do it around you, and pretend that thing never happened, as if that is the most merciful thing people can do for you.

Life not going according to plan is not a failure. It is not a reason to cease entirely, to disappear. That’s when we can show up, that’s what makes live theater interesting, that’s what makes life interesting. In a movie, if we make a “mistake” we would edit it out, do it again, and pretend it never happened (“mistake,” meaning, we didn’t follow the script everyone agreed to before hand, we dropped character, we dropped all sense of possibility). But, as we all know, so many of the best moments in film are improvised—when things were not going according to plan, but the ensemble held on to the sense of possibility, were earnest and responded to the present moment fully, they didn’t drop, give up, pretend it didn’t happen, start over. They kept going. The worst thing? It doesn’t work, and you do cut it. Or, in theater, you try again the next night. But we know for sure what happens if you just “pretend it didn’t happen,” or drop character, or shrink into hoping nobody saw you. We know that. So why don’t we play?

Who taught us that it was such a burden to everyone else if you change the plan? I can see it’s a problem if you change the plan because you wanted things to go your way, and you do it instead of the plan. But if something goes wrong despite your best efforts to support the plan we all agreed to, then…then I want you to keep the ball in the air. Do what you need to do to keep the ball in the air. When you have the ball, and something goes wrong, I am going to follow your lead in what you think needs to happen to keep the ball in the air. “The Ball” meaning the story, the essence of the moment, the truth. If something goes wrong, and you don’t acknowledge it, then it is not the truth. And we are just watching you trying to hide in plain sight.


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