Back stage lurks a shadow life of what you see from the audience.The crazy antics you see on stage don’t spring from nowhere. They’re fueled with real life wackiness. Actors are collectively a bundle of nerves, and intestines, which can explode under pressure.
On occasion, I have been strongly advised to light a match after I finished my business in the toilet despite the fact that most theaters are fire traps. Just like nervous sweat smells different than regular sweat, nervous poop has a certain tang to it.
I tend to fart and swear when I get nervous. Because I have grey hair, it is pretty humorous when I say the word M*F*er. After I emerge from the light booth, where I can surreptitiously check out the audience, I might comment, “Ooh, there’s quite a few M*F*er’s out there tonight!” It’s not about you. It’s about me. I want to make the other actors laugh.
It’s fun to make people laugh onstage and a challenge I relish backstage. Actors take themselves very seriously before and during a show.. No one wants to forget their lines or look bad. Messing up lines is expected on my part. I know myself. I’m never going to be perfect. Modeling failure gives other people a chance to shine and to not feel like they’re alone when they blow it. I have seen a great correlation between people who get every word right and a lack of humanity but perhaps that’s just my jealous rage speaking.
At the end of the first act I found myself getting warped and woofing in a quick costume change.Then I realized I could go on stage in disarray and continue to dress while there. By trying to control the outcome backstage I had deprived myself of business onstage. It is never good to be slave to perfection. Theatre is about making clay look like marble, but even realistic marble needs a few cracks.
One of the ways we obsessively control our nerves backstage is through food.
I got into my character, (the crazy mom), by making the food for the dinner in the first scene. It was always pasta but i changed it up each night with the sauces and spices. One night about two tablespoons of garlic powder fell into the pasta. It was too late to make more so I scraped off what I could and hoofed it down to the show. My odoriferous entrance was noted and concerns were voiced about the effects on at least one of the kisses in the second act. I countered with the overwhelming benefit of smell-o-rama making our dinner scene all the more believable. It certainly cleared out the sinuses. There was none left over at the end of the show.
My biggest success was with cleaning up backstage before our last show. I was picking up empty water bottles, peppered figs and other assorted and sordid trash from the floor when I spied a plastic grocery bag under the couch. In it was a box of unopened “Gourmet chocolates from Canada” with a thank you note. Since none of our actors or crew was named “Rachel” we opened up the note to find out that Rachel had done a fine job supporting the children in some long ended production for which Henry’s parents wanted to thank her with this gift. So thank you Henry’s parents for the nice gift. I’m sure Rachel did not forget these delicious chocolates. She was probably just allergic to them. For about a hundred and ten seconds, people acted like the chocolate was too old to eat and that it would be tacky to devour it, until they did. It was gone by intermission.
So besides being a 55 year old woman with cellulite having to take off her pants and shirt in front of a bunch of twenty somethings in the blue light of pretty tight quarters, life was not that bad backstage. When I feel my real life is sad and useless I think of how badly I had to go to the bathroom each night right when we were supposed to start and how I would forget about it while I was onstage trying to look relaxed and get the words out of my mouth. The mind and the body can be fools and they can fool others. It’s called acting.