Flight or Fight—or Bite Your Lip

16 Aug
by The Commonweal Ensemble; compiled by Jeremy van Meter; all photos courtesy of Jason Underferth

Live theatre is simply that. It is live and in the moment. Most nights a performance will proceed exactly as it was rehearsed. On other nights a little thing called reality steps in and changes things up. Mostly that reality comes in a dose requiring hysterical laughter. But, of course, there is a performance happening and laughter is off limits. Or is it……..? 

Stef Dickens, Katie Berger, Jeremy van Meter, and Catherine Glynn in “Pillars of Society”

Katie Berger: During a performance of Pillars of Society in which Stela Burdt was on for Stef Dickens, Stela got distracted talking to her lovely husband, Scott Dixon backstage.  Little did we know that she would be late for an entrance, causing Catie Glynn, Jeremy van Meter, and I to engage in a group hug right there onstage.  It’s a good thing that my face was hidden during this exchange of emotion.  I was so close to laughing that I couldn’t look at Catie for the whole rest of the scene.  I have since decided that whenever anything goes wrong on stage for the rest of my acting career, I’ll just hug it out.

Gary Danciu: The one moment when I could barely stifle a laugh on stage was caused by former seasonal company member, Art Moss, during our production of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a scene involving a conversation between Art, Adrienne Sweeney, and myself. Art’s character, Heck Tate, is supposed to come back from a lunch break having finished his lunch. On this particular night, however, Art came out wearing a bib and munching on a big piece of fried chicken. Art is known for his onstage shenanigans and this one just got to me. My face was blood red and it took all of my focus not to lose it on stage. Adrienne, on the other hand, was just annoyed. But that’s a different story. 

Stan Peal as Thomas Stockman

David Hennessey: Last spring, in the middle of the town meeting scene of An Enemy of the PeopleStan Peal as Thomas was winding up his condemnation of the petty concerns of his fellow townsmen by comparing them to animals. The exact line is “… he turns the proposition on its head and proclaims that the pig and the rat and the dog in the street that are the finest beasts that ever walked.”
As one of the townsmen, I was sitting in the audience on the night when Stan stumbled on the line, saying, “… proclaims that the pig and the rat and—Owls—are the finest beasts that ever lived.”

With audience sitting near me, I had to look away for a moment to keep from laughing. And I noticed that the actors on stage were either looking at the floor or away from Stan to stifle their guffaws.

During the scene change afterword, we were all laughing briefly backstage. Irene Erkenbrack, playing Petra, parodied Thomas’s sentiments as she picked up a prop for the next scene, by saying quietly, “Dirty old owls….”

Megan Pence:  Here is an example of an UN-stifled laugh—during the opening scene of Parfumerie, I was playing a customer and Scott was supposed to be attempting to sell me a bottle of perfume. 

There was a lot of hustle and bustle around the stage, and Scott and I had this elaborate whispered bit where I was supposed to be sniffing the cork of a bottle and rejecting the “perfume” outright. 

During one show, Scott had the wrong prop, and the bottle could not be opened, so Scott asks my character if I would like to “look at” his perfume selection. I was so thrown that I laughed out loud right at him. Thank goodness I was facing upstage and there was so much going on in the scene around us that not many people in the audience noticed my giggling. 

Hal Cropp, Scott Dixon, and Adrienne Sweeney in “The 39 Steps”

Hal Cropp:  At a recent performance of The 39 Steps, during the train sequence, when Scott, Adrienne, and I are seated on three chairs and simulating the movement of the train by bouncing continually throughout our dialogue, there is a point in the scene where Scott gets up to “leave” the train compartment and upon his return goes to take his seat. At this point, I have my legs crossed. Scott catches my foot on his way down to the chair, loses his balance and falls, rolling “through” the upstage “wall” of the train compartment and begins to deliver his lines from his seated position on the floor. Adrienne, who thinks that anything to do with people falling or running into walls is hysterical, has not yet seen Scott, but turns to him to deliver her response, sees him on the floor and, realizing what has happened, begins to “twinkle.” Because I know her so well, I realize that she’s finally caught on to the situation and, watching her try to suppress what I know will be a huge outburst of laughter, I begin to “twinkle” as well. Scott, who has by this time regained his seat, holds the newspaper up covering his face and we can see his shoulders going up and down, shaking with laughter…and all three of us fall apart with laughter, trying to maintain the dialogue. The audience catches on and, in the spirit of “The Carol Burnett Show” studio audience, joins in what becomes a raucous round of laughter.

Stef Dickens: This is so cruel but Hal started it…..for me it was a week or so ago, Scott fell while he was running around at the opening of the show, and although my immediate reaction should have been concern for his well being, instead I burst into giggles.

Scott Dixon: In live theatre, there are almost always surprises—props that don’t work like they should, costumes that take on a life of their own, actors who get tongue-tied—and I like to think of myself as one who can stay cool under pressure and not break up, even when everyone else around me is.  There have been a couple of notable exceptions on the Commonweal stage. 

Scott Dixon and Hal Cropp in “Harvey”

When we did Harvey back in 2008, I was on stage with Hal Cropp, Mike Davidovich (former Apprentice), and Jill Underwood. Something about the expression on Mike’s face in one scene started Hal giggling, and suddenly I could feel my face starting to break and the laughter bubbling up. Once the giggles start, the worst thing you can do is look at one of your fellow actors because the giggles are incredibly contagious. Fortunately, I had a clipboard in my hand that I could hide my face behind until the silliness subsided. That didn’t do anything to help any of the other actors on stage recover their composure, but once the giggles start, it’s every actor for themselves.

Adrienne Sweeney: I have two instances: the first is referenced by Hal above and the other moment was in The Importance of Being Earnest. It was nearing the end of the show and Kim Schultz as Lady Bracknell was down center stage to give her speech admonishing us all for going behind her back. Patrick Bailey and I were on stage left holding hands, Lisa Weaver and Scott Dixon were stage right holding hands. Throughout the entire second act there had been an ENORMOUS black fly buzzing about the stage—the kind that you can actually hear it as it dive bombs past your head. We all managed to ignore it UNTIL the moment it lands on Lady Bracknell’s nose. At which point Lady Bracknell screeched something that sounded like “GAGAGAGAGAGA!!!” and whipped her hands about her head. All bets were off.
To hear Patrick Bailey tell the story, I dug my fingernails so hard into his hand that I drew blood. I believe this is an exaggeration but only slightly. We actually had to turn and face upstage, though we weren’t fooling anyone. The entire audience could tell from our convulsions that we had lost it. Somehow we got through but it truly is a day that will live in Commonweal infamy. 

Carolyn Fast: Well this doesn’t quite count as stifling a laugh because I spent the whole scene snorting and laughing and choking. In The 39 Steps, during Hannay’s speech at the Assembly Hall when Adrienne and Scott are sitting there as the old men, Dunwoody and McQuarrie, I looked over and noticed that Adrienne didn’t have her mustache on. Upon closer inspection I realized it had gotten stuck to the front of her hat. Not only did it look funny but I completely lost it when I pictured Adrienne backstage frantically looking for her mustache, completely unaware that it was stuck to her head. I couldn’t stop giggling and the more I tried to stop the more odd noises I made. Eventually I ducked under the table to get it out of my system.

Paul Steffens, Catheine Glynn, Daniel Stock, and Jeremy van Meter in “The Philadelphia Story”

Paul Steffens: One night during a particularly pivotal scene in Act 2 of The Philadelphia Story, a bra dangling from a carried pile of clothing became entangled with a chair, dragging it halfway across the stage. Thankfully, I have a bit of business dabbing sweat with a handkerchief at that moment, so I was able to cover my face while I was laughing uncontrollably. The cast thought it was a one-in-a-million chance, but lightning struck twice when it happened again a few weeks later! 

Jeremy van Meter: I was also involved in the “bra-tangled-in-the-chair” scene referred to above. Of course it fell to me to untangle that bra from the chair to send Daniel Stock and Catherine Glynn on their way so focusing on that helped to fend off the demons as the audience howled. However, the thing that breaks me onstage is when I see someone else fighting it off as well. The bra was freed from the chair and Daniel and Catherine were safely off-stage and then—I turn to Paul Steffens with his face buried in a handkerchief. To quote Adrienne, “all bets were off” and it took all the strength in me to maintain the straight man. 


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