The opening night audience, all a-flutter with anticipation, arrives at what is known as the summation scene of a mystery thriller, the famous detective having cleverly solved what was heretofore a thorny puzzle. He meticulously lays out the clues and their natural conclusion, the culprit is apprehended, and lights come up, and everyone goes home happy and satisfied with the comedy, the drama, and the romance.
Unless of the course, the actor playing the famous detective short-circuits, and has an experience we call in the theatre, “going up.” Which, in more common language, means he forgets his lines.
Truth is, this sort of thing is fairly common in the theatre. You know what you’re doing, and suddenly, you don’t. The audience may or may not be able to tell that you’re struggling, but your fellow actors know, and for a few brief seconds that seem like a few long years, your mind is a white-out, and you are falling through an abyss that is the heart of the actor’s nightmare.
I had a couple of these moments over the opening weekend of Taproot Theatre’s Gaudy Night, and I suspect it’s not all that proper to talk about these things in public, but the experience of that kind of terror (too strong a word here, but not far from it) has spiritual and ordinary life analogs that I think are worth considering.
I’ve heard a couple of accomplished people lately (a leading Broadway actor and I forget who the other one was) say that in truth, no one in the world knows much about what they’re doing—we’re all just winging it as best we can. We’re making it up as we go, and as we have all experienced, the thin veneer of confident presentation can suddenly come apart, it’s sickening disappearance amazingly swift. A credit card doesn’t clear and we’re standing in the grocery line as everyone stares at the insolvent dude, humiliation pretty complete. We sit on the freeway, car dead, backing up traffic for miles, suffering the withering stares of passing folks who used to be in a hurry. Sexual performance short-circuits, critics call your writing bad names, a junior high audience of two-hundred popular kids from around the state of Texas bursts into loud catcalls of laughter when you begin to sing at show and tell, and you’re serious as all get-out (as we used to say in Texas.) What do you do? You wilt, you hide under a rock, you climb back into bed, you sing on to the end—by God, let ‘em laugh!
That last event (the laughing junior high crowd) was one of the epic experiences of my childhood, one that marked me more deeply than I care to admit. Failure is confusing. I’ve been in a couple of plays where I lost my lines so badly that there was really no escape. Should we admit these things? I don’t know, but it’s the truth…this is life. We lose our lines. We forget what play we’re in, what character we’re playing, and who the hell knows what action we’re supposed to be playing at the moment? Our actor partners get bug-eyed, stammering, wanting to help, and they do in some way rescue you, but truth is, you will either get back on track or you won’t, and the play (or the job, or the marriage, or the education, or the poem) will live or die, and employment will go on or end, and either way, you’ll go home at the end of the night and decide how you will respond to this ongoing yawning reality that tomorrow will bring yet another opportunity to public embarrass yourself.
Welcome to risk. Welcome to opportunity. Welcome to what it means to be alive. As my wise mentor/voice teacher/second mom told me years (I was about to get married, and the comment referred to the possibility of having a child sooner than later), “If you don’t want to play, don’t suit up.”
“If you don’t want to play, don’t suit up.”
Truth is, when I’m at the theatre as an audience member, I always enjoy the moments when actors get lost a bit, mostly because it immediately illuminates the difference between theatrical time, that magic state of mind where we travel imaginatively to where the play has us going, and actual time, where flesh and blood panic, and adrenaline rushes not because of anything fictional, but because suddenly, the very real human stakes of accomplishment and failure are laid bare, and now, something alive is happening, drama running all over the body, capturing in a heartbeat the human struggle we all face, every day. It’s not good, it shouldn’t happen, we’re all professionals here, it’s a breaking of the contract with the audience. But truth is, it happens, and we get back up and go on.
Or we don’t.
That impulse to stop, to lay down, to quit making, to quit risking, to quit giving, to quit putting yourself in the place where failure is not only possible, but likely…I get it. Life is hell, sometimes. It hurts. It breaks our backs. We get betrayed, or we betray, and desperate, we think we can’t go on. Been there, done that, may go back to it someday. Maybe today if the wind changes.
So yes, I forgot my lines. There are reasons, but they don’t matter really. And let’s not overdramatize. Truth is, I got back on track, and we delivered the play. Disaster avoided. Mostly. But when the lights go down, and you know you have another show in a few hours, here’s what you do. You go to work, you do your damndest to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And you take courage and comfort in the words of the actors around you, all of whom have been there, as they offer you grace and strength to go out and do it again. And again. And again. And again. And that night, you sweat bullets, and the words are there, every one of them. And you thank God, and move on.
Go be a part of your life’s drama today. Who knows what part of the play you’re in? If you’re struggling with your lines, speak anyway. Trust that they’ll come. And if you see any fellow actors, those friends caught up in the intersection of your story with theirs, struggling with their lines, elevate the attention you’re paying, and hold them up. The audience they’re playing for needs you to help them.
Those audiences may well be divine.
Speak the speech, I pray thee, trippingly on the tongue….