We’ve all been there – props not in place, mics failing, even scenery falling over. I remember being a lighting operator on a show set in a women’s toilet, where half the cubicles collapsed mid-performance! Things do go wrong in theatre all the time.
In this episode from the BBC’s Essay series, artistic director Josie Rourke talks about why working in theatre isn’t always plain sailing; what happens when disaster strikes and things go wrong. She explores mistakes of many kinds, not just the obvious ones that make an audience laugh, but the deeper rooted ones that start in the rehearsal room. Real food for thought!
On a more frivolous note, recently in a newly opened production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the glass elevator got stuck just before the finale, leaving actors stuck in mid-air. The show was halted for 6 minutes while the problem was solved and apparently the apologetic stage manager received a round of applause from the audience. This prompted Lyn Gardner to write in her Guardian blog a piece entitled
Prop flops: why I love it when things go wrong on stage
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s great glass elevator may be unreliable – but misfiring props and mistimed cues can enhance rather than wreck a performance
The great glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane malfunctioned last week, leaving Douglas Hodge’s Willy Wonka and the child actor playing Charlie stranded – and the performance halted – while they were rescued. They were lucky: when a flying carpet misbehaved during a Californian production of Aladdin, it tipped off the actors and left them hanging by their safety harnesses.
Provided nobody gets hurt or is humiliated (I once saw a poor Juliet lose her knickers when the elastic snapped), I must confess to having a sneaking enjoyment for moments that go wrong in the theatre. Doors that refuse to open, sets that wobble and revolves that malfunction may be a producer’s nightmare, but they demand spontaneity of a kind too much theatre spends its time trying, and failing, to emulate.
When things don’t go according to plan, it reminds us that what we are seeing is live and the actors are human. I once saw a rather dull revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest during which the teapot handle came off as one of the actors was trying to pour the tea. The moment was galvanising for both actors and audience, and we all laughed a great deal more for the rest of the show. It made everyone relax.
Sound effects are particularly prone to mistiming: I’ve heard telephones ring long after they have been answered and heard gunshots after the actor has fallen to the ground in apparent agony.
None, though, has been as spectacular as the misfiring special effects during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII at the Globe in 1613, when a cannon was fired and a spark lodged in the thatch, causing the theatre to burn down.
The reality is that something often goes wrong during theatre shows, but it’s rare that the audience notices. It’s only when something goes badly awry with a big illusion such as the glass elevator in Charlie that we notice, or when the show doesn’t go on at all or has to be abandoned because of computer malfunction. Cancellation of a performance because of technical hitches can be really annoying for audiences (who can’t always return on another evening), but I reckon audiences are hugely sympathetic when a production has to be halted for a few minutes. Rather than detracting from their theatre experience, it often enhances it. Those who were at Charlie last Friday will be talking about it for years.
Gardner’s post in turn prompted the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) to confess a few of its own mishaps:
We do our best to make sure all our performances run smoothly, but live theatre does go wrong from time to time. Here are some examples…
The Merry Wives of Windsor has a chequered history. Both our recent production and Merry Wives the Musical(2006), were each stopped three times, through difficulties with the set or audience illness. Stage Manager Robbie Cullen said: ‘On two preview performances, I had to pause Dame Judi Dench mid scene. The second time she said to me (and the audience) “Oh not you again!”’
The hydraulic leaning book cases on David Farr’s The Winter’s Tale (2009) decided to lean (and start tipping the odd book) a scene early on a New Year’s Day matinee at the Roundhouse.
During one performance of Twelfth Night last year the on-stage lift cut out as it was coming down, leaving Andrew Aguecheek, played by Bruce Mackinnon stuck in the open cage lift. He and fellow actors improvised (not in iambic pentameter) before stage managers had to temporarily stop the show, to much audience laughter, until the lift was fixed. Later in the same performance Aguecheeck seemed to forget where the front of the stage was and fell off it – he was startled but unhurt.
Unfortunately when shows are stopped, it is not always for mundane reasons. I remember going to see a production at the RSC of a play called Singer, by Peter Flannery, starring Antony Sher which was stopped after about 20 minutes because of a bomb scare and we were evacuated from the theatre. The similar thing happened to me when I happened to be in London two days after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 and two performances I was about to see were cancelled because members of the respective casts were stuck on the Underground following subsequent terrorist alerts.
It has to be said though that sometimes mistakes are tragic. In 1673, Molière, the French actor and playwright, died after being seized by a violent coughing fit while playing the title role in his own play, The Hypochondriac. In 2008 a german actor slit his throat on stage in Vienna when the prop knife for his suicide scene turned out to be a real one. Thankfully he survived. However, sadly only a few weeks ago a performer with Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas was killed during a performance of Ka.