Choked

It happens.  Actors, singers, speakers… if you do this work often enough, you will have those moments when the unexpected thing catches you off guard.  Sometimes it’s something totally outside your control, a baby cries, the lights go out, or the elderly man in the 3rd row has a heart attack (true story). The seasoned performer learns to pause or power through depending on the situation.

I’m not acting!

I have a long list of those unexpected moments.  The ones I hate the most however are those moments that are seemingly “in my control.”  This would be the forgotten line (daydreaming again!), the pants ripping out (wardrobe malfunction), or the missing prop (that I forgot to preset on the stage).

I had a new one catch me off guard this last weekend. I was suffering from a bit of post-nasal-drip and was having a hard time getting the voice to work properly—trying to avoid the constant throat clearing that accompanies this annoying little ailment. This is not a new thing for me, and I am used to powering through, and usually find that once I hit the stage and start talking, the symptoms go away… a mystery or a miracle… take your pick.

I’d just begun my performance of Not The Way I Heard It, and was about 5 minutes into the presentation when a bit of “drip” found its way down the wrong pipe. I desperately needed to cough! Being a professional this was a big “no-no” and also knowing that I was wearing a microphone only an inch from my mouth a cough would result in an ear-splitting sound effect that was clearly not in the script.  I tried a muffled throat-clearing and that wasn’t working.  I tried to power through, hoping that by speaking I could clear out the offending slime… All that came out was a whisper of my normal voice… clearly I was in trouble.

Fortunately the scene takes place in a doctor’s office, where I had already established the character as ill (carrying a handkerchief and blowing my nose).  Also fortunately I had water on stage—something I have been doing regularly ”just in case” for all my performances. The acting code requires that you deal with the unexpected “in character,” so I made the character act like he was having hard time speaking (no acting required!), suppressing the cough, I went to the water and drank. It took a few drinks and a few failed attempts at speaking before I was able to get the voice back.  I had to fight the urge to cough for about 10 more minutes into the performance but by God’s grace was able to power through.

After the performance I apologized to a few people for my voice failing me… their response, “I thought it was part of the character.”  Which was the best thing you could have said to me at the time.

What about you?  Do you have a story to share about dealing with the unexpected in front of an audience? Anybody have a cure for post-nasal-drip?

10 thoughts on “Choked

  1. Scott Bettis says:

    I remember a performance during the singing Christmas tree program at Western Baptist College (now Corbin College). We were near the end of the scene, I’d just given an order to my manservant who turned to go, when the lights went out prematurely. There were still several lines important enough to need being said, so I called out to the butler, “Oh, and check to make sure the electric bill got paid on time.” at which point the lights came back on, and we finished the scene. I know it doesn’t carry the sense of urgency that your esophageal emergency must have, but at the time I felt the cold, clammy fingers of panic begin to grip my heart. Saved by a predilection for improv…

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  2. kc says:

    I broke a bone in my hand making an entrance – luckily, I didn’t have to talk right away, and by the time I did, I had pushed the pain away. Different time, different scene – I passed out on stage. Harder to cover that…

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      1. kc says:

        I’m not sure what they (the audience) thought. It was Legacy, and I was one of the sibs. I was seated at the time, and I just sort of slumped but didn’t fall – my fellow actors worked around it. The tickle-in-the-throat thing, though – that’s such a judgment call. Is it bad enough to stop? Is it distracting enough that people will only notice that and not the play? How long will it last? I’ve never had to face that. I did do a performance of Pall of Darkness with full-on laryngitis, but in that case, we could explain to the audience what was happening – I performed with a microphone pressed to my lips, and people had no problem either hearing or getting with the spirit of the play.

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  3. Jim says:

    I hear you, man. Every now and then I have had people accusing me of taking the easy job of working in theater and being a writer. It’s obvious that those people have no idea that it’s hard work…on all levels. It’s work that calls for exhaustive planning, detail work, flexibility, and lightning fast mind and reflexes. It’s a job where a small number of mistakes can affect your career for months…sometimes years to come. It’s the old catch-22 of when we’re doing it right, no one is supposed to notice; but when we mess up……..The motto is, my friends that the people who use their minds to make a living are not taking the easy way out; far from it. 🙂

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  4. Kristy Byers says:

    I was performing with NarroWay production once (www.narroway.net). And we dealt with everything from performing with broken bones to having a camel sucking on your head (not head piece but my actual head–in a freeze none the less) and countless other things that happend with outdoor Bibilcal productions.

    One night I had an audience member actually argue with my character. Let me give you the back story (short version). It was the “typical” Barabbas/Jesus crucify him scene, we are in a 3,000 outdoor arena. I am in my normal spot in the audience, saying my normal “ad lib” lines like “give us Barabbas”, “Jesus is a blasphemer”, when this lady a few rows behind be and a about 20 feet from, stands up and starts walking toward me. She gets about 8 feet away and says “Hey you, He’s our Lord, He’s the Savior of the World. You are wrong.”
    I thought “wow”, but I was in a Bible outfit and needed to stay in character. I looked at her and said “You’re a fool. He claims to be God. He is but a carpenter. Now sit down.” Then I pulled in my fellow actors with ad libs “did you hear the sillinest of this women. Savior of the world, right?” She sat down and we finish the scene. But though the cruxifiction and the resurrection, I kept thinking, I hope that lady is okay.
    After the show, she found me. She said “I am so sorry. I just got caught up in everything.” (Best complement a writer and director could get.) I said it was okay, then she responded “I’m so glad you said what you said. I never thought about what it would feel like to be Jesus’ follower during that moment in time. I hope I never forget it. (One of the best compliments an actor can get.)
    As I tell folks, I direct, it’s not just about the words, or the actors, it’s mainly about the message. That lady may never remember my face, but she will remember that moment. Her face has faded from my memory, but that moment hasn’t. My I always remember it.

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    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Great story, Kristy. My first professional acting job was with the Smokey Mountain Passion Play–outdoor drama with large cast, live animals and all the trimmings. SO MANY unbelievable stories of both on stage and backstage antics… some planned and others not! But a wonderful experience!

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  5. Denyea Clarkson Swartz says:

    I’ve tripped, caught my heel in the hem of my costume causing me to fall down stairs, and had a chair roll out from under me TWICE landing me soundly on the floor, but the most remarkable mishap occurred when I inhaled dust or somthing on stage and knew I was about to have a coughing fit. I held it in as long as I could waiting for an opportune time to exit the stage, ran through the wings and backstage so as not to be heard, then let her rip. We were in a theater with two stages, the other of which was showing “Streetcar Named Desire”. Someone from that show shoved a bottle in my hands and said, “Drink this!” I took a big gulp not knowing they had real liquor in their prop bottle. It stopped me from coughing. It also took my breath away!

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