Those Unrehearsed Moments

When people engage me in conversations about my work, I find they inevitably want to hear stories about life on the stage… not the process of creating a great character, not memorization, not technique…. no they want to hear about the things that go wrong.  Those most embarrassing moments… moments that give actors nightmares.  People seem to enjoy hearing stories about the other guy’s misery. I could tell you stories that every actor has about forgotten lines, missed cues or props… but those stories are common and really for anyone who has spent much time on stage, to be expected.  What is not so common are the truly UNexpected things that happen.

Such was the case during one performance of my adaption of Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps. Being a period piece  that takes place in the early 1900’s, I did what a lot of actors do when trying to turn back the clock on stage and shopped for an appropriate suit of clothes at local thrift stores.  Having done this play for over 26 years, you can appreciate the fact that I have gone through more than one costume during the run of this play. Bodies change, as you all know … I wish I could get back the body I had 26 years ago.

There is a point early in the play where I portray an out-of-work drifter, a tramp, who interrupts a church worship service.  For this scene, I put on an old coat and walk down the center aisle to become the tramp.  At the end of my speech I am supposed to have a heart attack, fall to the floor and die.  On this particular performance, as I fall to the floor I hear, or rather feel, a vibration coming from the seat of my pants.  This is followed by a rather profound draft on my upper thighs…not just a little draft mind you.  I am suddenly aware that the entire seat-end of my pants is ripped out from stem to stern. I am having a legitimate “wardrobe malfunction,” long before Janet Jackson coined the phrase.

At these moments, time stands still. What is only seconds feels like eternity and all kinds of thoughts that go flashing through your mind:  “I guess it is time for another trip to the thrift store,” and remembering my mother’s advice “always wear clean underwear, in case you are in an accident.” I don’t think this is what she had in mind.

There are many ways an actor can “die” onstage during a performance and I am seeing the headline:  “Actor dies of exposure on stage.”  Because at that moment I wanted to die.  But then I catch my breath and pray for God to save my rear end–quite literally.

Now you have to realize that I am about 15 minutes into a presentation that goes almost an hour.  What am I going to do? I weigh my options:
A. Stop the play, tell the audience what has happened and excuse myself to go find another pair of pants, then come back and finish the performance. “Sing another hymn, will you?”
B. Wait for the audience to consider that maybe I really am dead and call for paramedics to come and take me away.
C. Or somehow, by the grace of God, continue with the show.

Considering this last option, two phrases were ringing in my brain. “The show must go on” is the first.  Sounds good, but how?  Then the voice of my high school drama teacher echoed one of the first rules of the stage: “an actor never turns his back on the audience.”  Aha!  Sounds great!  That’s what I will do.  I’ll continue the show and never turn my back on the audience.  Except for one minor–well make that major–problem.  That is a rule that is made to be broken, and one that I intentionally break in most of my one-man shows.  You see, I am–on my knees–a good place to be in this situation; however, the rest of the play — my set– is directly behind me up some steps.  My next move is to go upstage to the coat tree and remove the jacket I have on with my back intentionally to the audience. The jacket that was helping to conceal at least part of my problem. But I am a professional, I can handle this.  So I stand and begin to re-block the play.  I learn a new way to walk.  I know that you don’t climb a mountain by going in a straight line.  So I zigzag my way up the stairs.

I make it through the play without the audience seeing anything they should not see.  At the end of the play comes the final test. I am supposed to exit down the center aisle.  As I exit I am praying “please nobody turn and watch me go!–eyes to the front please!”  And I will save you the trouble of answering the question “boxers or briefs?”–it’s boxers!

Thankfully, to my knowledge no one turned to watch me go.  I made a beeline for my car, put on a pair of jeans and returned to the church foyer to greet people.  No one said a word about ripped pants.  No one seemed to notice that I was now wearing jeans instead of the navy blue suit pants I had on during the show.

You can’t prepare for this in rehearsal… or … maybe you can. It’s one thing to play your part the way you have rehearsed it, but I think it is the unscripted moments in life that test us… and remind us that people are watching us in those moments as well. It was knowing the basics of my craft, through my study, memorization, and yes rehearsal that gave me skills to respond and react appropriately when disaster strikes.  I think there just might be a lesson there for all of us, actor or not.

Chuck Neighbors

7 thoughts on “Those Unrehearsed Moments

  1. Frank Paine says:

    Chuck,

    You certainly have a way of telling a story. What a wonderful way to share the unexpected way life can pitch us a curve – I’d say to knocked it out of the park with your professional craftiness and blessed us all in its retelling!

    Thanks for sharing. I’m glad to serve in a tradition that still tends to use robes!!

    Frank

    Reply
  2. Brett Hadley says:

    Great story and great life application. Brings back lots of memories from being on the road, thanks!

    Reply
  3. Josh Neighbors says:

    Nice, Uncle Chuck!
    Hadn’t heard this one before!

    Reply
  4. Andrew Bright says:

    Chuck,

    Loved the story! I totally know what you mean about people wanting to hear the horror stories, too from on the stage or on the road. In fact, we’ve dedicated a whole webpage to what we call our “failed missions”. It’s the most visited and commented on page on our site.

    Reply
  5. Sheri Molyneaux says:

    Thanks for the story and you’re right! We love to hear about the unexpected. Started my day off with a chuckle. However, remembering my days on the stage I might have opted for Option #2!

    Reply
  6. Denyea says:

    Oh, Chuck… as we say here in the south, Bless you heart…

    Reply

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