When an actor takes ill in the moments before the curtain opens, or the electricity goes out, or one actor skips two scenes ahead, theater performers and directors must find a way forward.
After all, the old saying is “the show must go on,” not “money back guarantee.” Though the circumstances vary, dedicated performers, backstage crews and directors in Central Oregon have steered through mayhem including filling last-minute holes in the set or audience members getting ill — and actors have usually stayed in character throughout.
Drunk on theater
During a 2004 performance of “Grotesque Lovesongs” at 2nd Street Theater, a small Bend theater in operation from 2001 until January of this year, a drunk passerby wandered into the theater and plopped down at the edge of the stage. Juliah Rae portrayed the mother in the show, which was a family comedy.
“We were in the middle of this kitchen scene, which was the worst one in the world for me because it was completely full of non sequiturs,” she said. “But there was this one moment when I had nothing to say and this kid walks in. He’s obviously wasted, and he sits on the platform. And you can see the other actors looking at each other.
Staying in character, Rae asked him to come with her to have a little chat. Out in the lobby, “I just explained to him that there was a show going on, and if he wanted to come and see it, that would be just grand, but he’d have to get a ticket for the next night or the next weekend,” she said. “He left, and then I came back into the scene and sat down and continued. I was playing Mom, so it made sense for me to just get up and take care of the situation.”
Saving a scene
When something goes awry and memorized lines and carefully rehearsed scenes are not enough to carry the day, that’s when a talent for improvisation comes in handy, said Bend actor and producer Brad Ruder.
Bend actress Julie Vadnais has appeared in over 50 shows and can recall walking on stage only to discover a prop is missing and having to improvise. She’s also been in scenes where another actor skipped 20 pages, and the actors had to somehow find their way back so the story made sense.
It’s pretty common for an actor to go up — that is, forget — a line, Rae said. The trick is to wend the way back to the proper place in a script.
In the two-person drama “The Gin Game,” which Rae directed in 2006, actors Randy Heise and Lynne Talbot had to play over a dozen hands of gin. In one performance, Talbot accidentally switched to a hand of gin and dialogue from a different round and scene.
“Randy said he could see me sitting over in the corner,” Rae said. “My eyes got really big, and he took care of it. He’s pretty astonishing.”
In this season’s “Stupid F---ing Bird,” which had no shortage of swearing, the actors probably swore more than was in the script, said Ruder, who starred in the Aaron Posner adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”
“I have to think at the end of the day, we had more f---s in there than we needed to,” Ruder said. “Because when we would go up on (forget) a line and not know what to do, we would throw in a random F-word because that’s what was working for us.”
Sometimes it’s simply weather that tosses a wrench in the works. Sandy Silver made her local directing debut after moving to Bend in 2003 with the 10-monologue play “Talking With,” also at 2nd Street Theatre.
“The show dealt with women dealing with life,” Silver said. In one monologue, “This particular woman is of age. She has lost a great deal of her friends, and now she was just fascinated with the shadows of light.”
For the opening of the second act, the stage was covered in table and floor lamps, even chandeliers.
“So she pulled down the little thing that turned on the lamp,” Silver said. “We immediately heard thunder and lightning. Lightning struck right in the middle of the scene. All the lights in Bend went out. It had hit a power line. I mean, the timing could not have been worse.”
Silver got on the stage in total darkness, and offered the audience tickets to another performance.
“Someone in the audience jumped up and said, ‘No, we don’t care if it’s done in the dark. We want to see the rest of it,’” Silver said. She, cast members and stage hands ran around searching for flashlights.
“We sat on the lip of the audience and turned on flashlights and continued doing the show with flashlights,” Silver said. The power did not return before the performance concluded, but the audience “loved it.”
That occurred before cell phones were standard issue, and had built-in flashlights. Last December, when the power failed during a daytime performance of “Peter Pan” for school kids, cell phones lit the path forward.
“A few cell phone lights popped on,” said Bree Beal, executive director of BEAT. Some teachers and parents in the audience turned their cell lights onto the actors. “So the kids just kept on performing. Cell phone lights kept coming on thanks to audience and volunteers, and soon we had 15 to 20 of them lighting our stage.” The last two acts were finished by the light of cell phones.
During a BEAT production of “Tarzan,” there was a scene in which Clayton, played by JJ Mitchell, threatens Tarzan with a shotgun. Tarzan, played by Steven Livingston, wrenches the gun away.
“Clayton laughed, saying that Tarzan does not know how to use a gun,” Beal said. At that moment, Tarzan was to point the gun at the sky with a sound effect of two shots “was supposed to go off. Which it did each performance … except for one night,” Beal said.
That night, Tarzan held the gun high, but no gunshot sound effect went off. “He waited … and waited. Finally, he lowered the gun back toward Clayton’s chest, at which moment the sound effect went off loud and clear, ‘BANG BANG!’” Beal said. “Clayton was NOT supposed to die at that moment in the story, and it’s very hard to improvise away two gunshot wounds to the chest.”
The moment could “only be described as a moment of improvisational genius,” Beal said. “Clayton pounded his fist on his chest, leaned into Tarzan’s face and bellowed, ‘I can take it!’ The entire cast managed to hold it together until they came backstage, where everyone was completely melting down laughing and cheering for JJ.”
Bad luck ‘Macbeth’
During Dionysus Presents’ 2015 outdoor production of “Macbeth,” sprinklers kicked on as actors took their bows after the second performance, according to director Clinton Clark. It was an evening performance, and the timers were set for 5:30 a.m.
“Dun dun dun,” he said, alluding to the superstition surrounding “Macbeth.” There’s a belief shared among thespians that the Scottish play is cursed, a belief that goes back four centuries.
“According to folklore, ‘Macbeth’ was cursed from the beginning,” writes the Royal Shakespeare Company. “A coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play.”
According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, many actors believe uttering the play’s name aloud in a theater triggers bad luck.
Bend actress Kit Foreman was cast as Lady Macbeth in Dionysus Presents’ 2015 production. Her superstition extends beyond saying “Macbeth” out loud in a theater — she writes “the Scottish Play,” explaining the name’s been redacted “due to ongoing superstition.” When she writes “Macbeth,” she writes it as “M*cbeth.”
The first week of the production, she experienced abdominal pain and nausea. By the second week, she’d been diagnosed with a miscarriage.
“I hadn’t even known I was pregnant. It was a whirlwind of doctors and tests, and I had no idea how to feel about what was happening,” she said by email. “It was waves of sadness, and anger, and concern for the show and for myself — but mostly, I was just tired. It felt like a bad dream.”
Though she continued to feel weak, “The show had to go on,” she said. To rest, she declined post-performance drinks with her co-stars, but her health continued to deteriorate. Then, on the final Friday of the “Macbeth” run, “all hell broke loose,” she said.
Foreman had a follow-up appointment with her doctor that morning. “She took one look at me and told me to go to the ER. I did, and during the more-than three hours in the waiting room I called our assistant director and told her that I was pretty sure something was very wrong and I didn’t know if I would make it to that night’s performance, but I was ‘pretty sure I would make it to closing night.’”
After tests and blood draws, she learned that sometime over the previous night, she learned that the embryo she hadn’t known existed until a week earlier had implanted in her fallopian tube, which had ruptured, and now her life was in imminent danger. Foreman was rushed into surgery, and one of her co-stars, Danielle Heron, stepped into the role and used a script.
“I’m sure she did a wonderful job,” Foreman said. “I wish I could have seen it.”
Her run-in with the Scottish Play didn’t end there, though.
A few weeks later, Foreman headed to the cast party for “Macbeth” with the show’s poster on her dashboard for her co-stars to sign.
“On the way, I was T-boned, and my car was totaled. The airbag on the passenger side ripped right through the middle of the show poster,” Foreman said. “Almost every show that I’ve ever done, I would do again. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable doing another production of the Scottish Play.”
Zippy costume changes are a fact of many shows, but again, things don’t always go down as planned. During a 2016 production of the musical “A Chorus Line” at the Tower Theatre, Ruder’s rented costume for the show fit just fine, but had a problematic zipper.
“The zipper was always a pain,” he said. “If you weren’t careful it would catch on the way down. Well, during my fast change, when I went from my normal dance attire into my big finale costume, the zipper caught.”
He needed an assist. As he put on the top of his costume and hat, “they’re trying to rip at my zipper to get my zipper to come (down). By the time that happened and I got into my new pants, I had missed my entrance.”
He happened to be the last one in the row in the scene, and was able to pop out into the right position pretty subtly.
“I got lucky because if I had to have move to the center of the stage,” he said, “that probably would have been more noticeable, but it wasn’t because I was on the end.”
Derek Sitter, actor, director and proprietor of Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend can rattle off any number of “mishaps, technical difficulties, lines dropped, furniture breaking, props missing, wrong sound cues,” he said. But by far the most memorable was “the codpiece wardrobe malfunction.”
Said codpiece failed in 1993 at Louisiana State University, when Sitter starred as Soranzo in John Ford’s classic tragedy “Tis Pity She’s a Whore.” In the scene, Soranzo has just married Annabella, only to discover she’s pregnant with his brother’s child. The scene opens with Soranzo dragging her in and slinging her across the stage — neither funny nor intended as comedy. Yet the crowd laughed.
“I thought this was very peculiar, but I carried on in my all-white outfit and white codpiece,” Sitter said. “The scene gets more intense as Soranzo’s heartbreak and anger to Annabella continues to escalate.”
The audience only laughed louder as the intensity of the scene ratcheted up.
“I was hell-bent on making the laughter stop,” Sitter said.
It didn’t. By the end of the scene, the crowd of 500 or more was “in stitches,” he said. As he exited the stage, he said, “I looked to my fellow actor portraying my henchman, Vasques, in the wings. He knew the whole time and was laughing himself.”
Unbeknownst to Sitter, the codpiece had become unattached at the top. The costume had a different sort of wedding night look that really stuck out in a way the costume designer had probably not intended.
Sitter was angry at the wardrobe department at the time. Now he calls it his first big lesson in comedy.
“I look back on it and just laugh. It was immediately following the wedding, so much of the audience actually thought it was intentional. Soranzo was ready for his wedding night,” Sitter said. “I would probably have laughed too.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, firstname.lastname@example.org