I have done theatre since I was eleven years old.
One of the fun and exciting things about live theatre is that every show is different. The lines, choreography, and blocking may be the same (and even those aren’t free from mistakes), but because live theatre is being performed by real people in real time, anything can happen.
I have been onstage when the guy playing opposite me totally forgot what he was supposed to say next. I was able to ad-lib enough to get him back on track.
I have been onstage, hidden behind a set-piece, when the curtain opened, and my sidekick was still offstage. The set-piece was floating in the middle of the stage, so there was no way for my partner in crime to join me. I had to enter the scene and do both my part and hers.
I have been hired as a swing where I knew almost every female role in the show and some of the male ensemble roles in addition to having my own track in the show. I performed every track I understudied and then some.
Every time one of these instances occurred, I was thrilled to be able to step in and save the day.
Over time, some part of me started to feel special that I had saved so many moments but no one had ever had to cover for me. I had a sense of pride.
Pride cometh before the fall … and the fear.
There have been many times where I have forgotten what I was supposed to say in rehearsals. Fear would set in. What if that had happened during a live show?
Inevitably, it did. I was in a five-woman play called Dixie Swim Club about a group of women who were on a swim team and spend one weekend a year together in a vacation house in North Carolina. The show takes place over the course of many years, ending with the women being in their seventies, one suffering from dementia.
One evening performance, toward the end of the show, when our characters were in their seventies, I said one sentence of my line and totally blanked on the next sentence. Adrenaline coursed through my body. I looked at the woman next to me, the one playing the woman with dementia, and she saw the blank look in my eyes. She cobbled together a version of, “Weren’t you telling us about X?” and got me back on track.
I was mortified. Wasn’t I supposed to be the one who saves the day? Not the one who needs saving!
After that incident, I worked on that line before every show until it ended. I was determined not to mess it up again. I was acutely aware every show that I could mess up again. I’d messed up once!
I berated myself something awful for having made a mistake. And I have remained hyper-vigilant about never letting that happen again.
Three years later, I was doing another play, A Comedy of Tenors. I played the larger-than-life wife of a famous Italian opera singer.
In the rehearsal process for stage productions, while you are still learning your lines but no longer carrying your script with you onstage, if you forget your next line, you literally say the word “line”, and the stage manager will tell you what you say next. It’s called “calling for ‘line’”.
As you get closer to performing the show in front of an audience, you come to a point where you are no longer allowed to call for “line” if you forget it. If you forget something or make a mistake, you have to figure it out.
The theatre where I was doing A Comedy of Tenors had two shows running. The other cast performed at the same time as us and had already opened their show, so they wouldn’t get to see our show in performance. In order to provide us with an audience and allow them to see our show, the small cast filed into the seats to watch one of our rehearsals. It was the first rehearsal since being told we could no longer ask for a forgotten line.
I hadn’t needed help with my lines for days, so I felt pretty good. I was also aware of other actors being in the audience. Of this being the first time someone “else” was seeing our work.
Within my first scene, having not even been on stage for five minutes, my mind went blank. Adrenaline rushed through my body.
And I called “line”.
After a long pause, the stage manager called out my line, and we resumed.
Now, shame flooded my body. I’m sure my face was flushed.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to call for line, but I did. The stage manager knew she wasn’t supposed to give me my line, but she did. Had I just gotten both of us in trouble? I felt awful.
I remember a director in high school once saying that sometimes an actor messes up in a way that no one needs to address. The error has been so epic that no amount of talking about it could be worse than the way the actor already feels about themself. They know what happened. They know it was not okay. They will make sure it never happens again.
This must have been one of those cases because neither the director nor stage manager addressed me personally about my faux pas, but my internal critic shredded me.
Who do I think I am? What is wrong with me? I knew the rules, and I broke them. I called for “line” in front of the other cast. Now they know how unprofessional I am. How can my cast possibly trust me after that? If I can’t provide a bandaid during rehearsals, what will happen during a show?
I doubled down and ran every line of mine in the entire play before every show. I did everything I could to make sure that never happened again. And it didn’t. But I remember it like it was yesterday. And not with a light-hearted nostalgia. I remember it will a deep sense of embarrassment and shame. And some part of me imagines, or fears, that someone who witnessed it also remembers it. Remembers my mistake.
As if anyone else cared as much about it as I did. As if no other actor has ever called for “line” after being given the cut-off!
At the beginning of 2019, I had the privilege of playing Paulette in the national tour of Legally Blonde. We ran the technical elements of the show in a theatre in Orange, Texas, and then headed out on the road where we would often perform in a different theatre every night.
We had a travel day and then a day off.
The opening night show in San Antonio, TX, went great!
The next night, we were in Midland, TX.
I underestimated how disorienting it might be to be in a different space. And by “underestimated”, I mean it didn’t even cross my mind.
During the next show in Midland, the second official performance of the tour, I followed the actor who played Kyle off stage left about two-thirds of the way through Act II just like I was supposed to.
As I stepped off the stage, I looked around and felt confused.
What do I do next?
I saw the actor who played Kyle walking toward the dressing rooms. I headed toward my dressing room.
Without a care in the world, I started changing my clothes for my next scene. High-heeled shoes off. Skirt off. Leggings in the process of coming off. Right foot free.
I heard the sound of a telephone ringing.
Unbalanced and hopping on my right leg, I pulled my left foot free from my leggings. My left foot landed hard on the ground with the realization that I was supposed to be onstage! Placing that phone call! But what could I do? I didn’t have any pants on! Or shoes! And I was nowhere near where I needed to be to in order to get my butt onstage. There was no way to right this wrong. At least no way that occurred to me in the moment. I came up with a couple of options several hours later, when it was much too late.
The Assistant Stage Manager came tearing into my dressing room while simultaneously knocking.
“Are you okay?”
How sweet is that? She believed in me so much that she thought I must be injured. That was the only conceivable reason I wasn’t onstage …doing my job!
I told her I made a mistake! I had followed Kyle offstage and just kept going instead of staying backstage to pick up my prop telephone and go back onstage a few minutes later for my next scene. I had gotten disoriented when I walked offstage. The backstage area looked unfamiliar, disorienting me, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. So I went to my dressing room to change for my next scene.
I stepped out into the hallway with the Assistant Stage Manager, leggings in hand, pant-less. I could hear the girl playing Elle trying to make something up to cover my absence.
I felt horrible.
We got through the rest of the show, with a few kind/pitying looks from a few cast members backstage.
I went straight to the girl who played Elle to apologize. I had left her out there all alone to cover for me. That is not okay.
She was so gracious, even telling me that a girl who played Paulette in another production with her had done the same thing. At that exact same moment.
I felt a little better knowing she’d faced this horror before. And that someone else had had a similar brain fart.
But I still felt terrible.
I personally apologized to each actor it directly affected and issued a more general apology to the entire company and promised it would never happen again.
And it didn’t.
This wasn’t the first time I’d made a mistake onstage, unfortunately.
But, something was different.
For the first in my life, I gave myself grace.
Sure, I was disappointed. Embarrassed.
But, I was finally able to look at myself and see that I was also human. Hadn’t each person I covered for just been a human being who had an off day? Gotten distracted? Forgot a line? Missed an entrance?
I had grace for them but could never find it for myself.
I have saved so many people’s butts. No shame.
Now, someone was saving mine.
I made a mistake.
And someone else had to cover for me.
I will make a mistake again. And again. And again.
And, it’s human.