Just as somehow the theatre gods ensure the protection of theatre folk, they bless them, too, with the gift of laughter…..laughter which dissolves tensions, adds clarity to our vision, changes masks, allowing the actor to see himself objectively.
Often when things seemed at their worst – rehearsals threatening to break down, everyone at the point of exhaustion – that much-needed laugh occurs And like tears, laughter is a cohesive element, patching up the frustrations, annoyance, and despair with warmth and optimism.
One of the most common causes for onstage laughter was the case of lines misdelivered. I used to keep a pad handy at rehearsals to record these Freudian slips, and I still chuckle at some of these years later.
Perhaps the line that convulsed me the most was delivered by King Arthur in a dress rehearsal for Camelot. I laughed so hard I literally fell off my chair and felt rather foolish when I realized no one else had joined in. Looking a bit offended, John asked me what he had said. Instead of proclaiming the stentorian cry, "Heralds, sound then trumpets!" he had said, "Heralds, mount the strumpets!" I realized with chagrin that our English Department had not sufficiently drilled vocabulary. I set about trying to explain to the growing rougeur on the young man's cheeks.
Another similarly risqué reinterpretation occurred in a rehearsal of Man of La Mancha. I was at my wits end trying to demonstrate to jay, playing the muleteer Pedro, how he should threaten Aldonza lecherously with his whip at the same time that he said the line, "My mules are not as stubborn as you are." My patience and his were close to exhausted, and in his last effort to time the business correctly, the line came out, "My mules enjoy it more than you." The ensemble disintegrated into laughter, and I heartily joined in, while thanking good luck it had not happened in performance before the conservative and hypocritical headmaster.
There were a few times when a risqué rewrite did make it into a performance. Once Randy, playing Fiona's father in Brigadoon, capsulized the sense, if not the letter, of the lines he says when warning the American of Meg's intentions: "Should ye happen to get laid in the glen." Loewe had written the more sedate "waylaid." In another performance of Taming of the Shrew, James, as Petruchio, swept Katharina into his arms in his final scene, delivered her a passionate and resounding kiss, and proclaimed the most unusual tag line ever associated with Shakespeare: "And so, goodnight. I'll go to my marriage bed. We three are married, but you two are spread."
On another night Gremio in Kiss Me, Kate heralded the arrival of Petruchio, whose presence provides the play's much-needed suitor for Kate, with this shocking line: "This gentleman is happily aroused." (script was "arrived.") As much as we all tried to keep our eyes from committing the indiscretion suggested, we checked the veracity of the statement, while poor David blushed vigorously under his bronzed makeup.
Often revised lines were the result of nerves. One night the actor, who announces to John Proctor (The Crucible) that it is time for him to decide if he will confess or hang, interrupted dramatically and said, "The soon is sun up!" It took an almost superhuman stretch of will to contain the laughter that would have ruined the closing minutes of the tragedy.
Other times, line mix-ups were the result of actors' struggling in a language not their native tongue. We were fortunate at our academy to have the richness of an international student population. Several foreign students had evinced interest and talent for the stage, and they were highly proficient linguistically in normal circumstances. But under the lights and pressure of the moment….well…
My favorite foreign star was an elegant Brazilian, a brilliant scholar, a devotee of Mozart, a highly cultured, articulate, sensitive, and handsome young man. I tapped him to play Lancelot in Camelot. His romantic accent and good looks worked perfectly, and he could act with passionate ardor and soulful intelligence, though occasionally got into tongue-twisters. One night he declared, "Sire, are there any rights I can wrong?" On another he reversed the lyrics of "If Ever I Would Leave You." He sang to Guinevere not as he should have, "Your eyes touched with sunlight, your lips red as flame," but rather, "Your face red as flame." He also had the Brazilian idiosyncrasy of switching "g" with "k" so one night he swore his allegiance to Arthur with "You are my kink!" In honor of that extraordinary new breed of ruler, we decided to present the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic
for Felipe to star in next year as "The Kink and I." It was absolutely wonderful, and by then he had mastered the correct pronunciation.
Props, too, can speak or so an irate colleague of mine declared as he threw down the recalcitrant rope ladder I had devised for Romeo escape from Juliet's balcony. The bloody coils refused to untangle themselves as the actor let them down over the balcony's edge. Endeavoring to stay poised, he shook them once, twice, thrice and finally in a desperate move, put one leg over the twelve-foot drop. The electrician, uncertain if he meant to jump, hastily blacked out the lights.
Weaponry in school productions is problematic since school administrators insist on plastic simulated weapons for "safety purposes." So far from looking realistic, these plastic weapons unfailingly add an air of comedy to a piece. In Carousel, we had an especially unreliable cap gun which never went off when it was supposed to kill Billy Bigelow. On three of the four nights, the gun did not function on the first try. Dan had become adept at improvising "Bloody pistol!" Billy was equally good at filling the empty moment. So on the fourth night when it went off as it should have, both actors were so stunned that they remained momentarily frozen in time before reacting to the traumatic fire.
Quite apart from technical difficulties are personnel problems. More than one hilarious incident arose with accompanists hired for the musical. In the early years I was blessed with the best possible friend and colleague as music director. Unfortunately for us, Emily had frequent professional singing engagements, which did not always permit her to make all the rehearsals. We agreed that she would hire a substitute for the nights she couldn't play for us. The year we did Brigadoon, we were forced to hire a college student who was reputed to be a brilliant pianist. This did not prove to be the case. When the young woman arrived, she had difficulty following Emily's cuts and tempi notes and invariably the tunes did not sound at all familiar. She was particularly disastrous with the dances where her rhythmic improvisations did not even resemble variations on a theme.
After trying the Sword Dance repeatedly and doing my best to keep my charges from being rude with their laughter, after smoothing over Harry's rising annoyance, I cried out in an outburst of pique: "Do me a favor. Don't play!" No crueler words were probably ever spoken to a musician, and a momentary chill of silence fell over the room. We completed the steps of the dance without another ripple of sound – an oddly surreal effect. Needless to say, we did not invite the young woman back again.
My last year in the Midwest, I was forced to do without Emily altogether. Her career had taken off, and she left the academy. The young man who assumed her duties was an affable scholar, a trumpeter and a composer, but he was not a pianist, nor did he have experience with high school musicals. He compensated with an abundance of good will and hard work, which somehow carried with it an edge of the comic.
At the first rehearsals for Man of La Mancha, he kept dropping pages of the xeroxed score, losing his place, and having to stop. My patience was gradually slipping away. I kept calling to stop and cut, particularly in the horses' dance. Each interruption was marked by a flurry of paper and a long wait before the accompanist began again. At the end of the rehearsal, I apologized for the all the stops and explained this was the trial and error process of opening rehearsals. He assured me tomorrow would be smoother.
The next day, armed with optimism and a score that was meticulously cut and pasted together to reveal the changes, he proceeded through the review material without any flyaway pages. It was only as we began to tackle new material that we hit trouble again. As he was playing the endless measures of the rape ballet, I realized we would never have enough PG rated choreography to fill the music. I held up my hand for him to stop, but he was so intent on the page, he did heed the signal. I called out in my most directorial voice, "Cut! Cut!" The music came to an abrupt halt. "We've got to take out at least ten measures," I said. Dutifully, he reached into his briefcase, removed a scissors and scotch tape, and before my stunned eyes, began to accommodate my request! I had never seen anyone in the theatre who had responded to that commonplace command with such literalness. I
shook my head and turned my back, trying to quiet the convulsions of laughter racking my shoulders.
I should have remembered the theatre has not only its own language, but a logic quite incomprehensible to non-initiates. It is a logic that both terrifies and delights. It is, on occasion, hopelessly illogical. What is least expected, often happens. That is the liveliness of the art.
Unexpected entrances and exits are often the source of extreme suspense for actors left on stage to cope. In Romeo and Juliet one evening, the Page failed to respond to Capulet's call. Bellowing into the wings, he summoned her three times. "Where is that blasted girl?" he improvised until he caught my frantic gesture from the wings to continue the script without her. Another night in Camelot, the knights who open the show have a short exchange of banter before Merlin enters. They came to that place in the script, but no wizard. Instead, we heard a panicky rapping on the doors of the improvised theatre space. They had been locked by an overzealous usher before the act began. Merlin had to run around to another door to make his entrance, while poor Jim got his baptism by fire, creating dialogue to fill the gap.
The most humorous was the night in Kiss Me Kate when the electrician brought up the lights too soon, and he caught onstage the stage manager bringing a table for Petruchio's house. Scott froze, then tried to vanish surreptitiously down the aisle. With the wonderful panache of Petruchio's character, James called out, "Come, villain, set it down." Scott did as he was told; the audience laughed appreciatively, and I congratulated them both afterwards for making Scott's onstage debut so felicitous.
There is something universal in these moments of hilarious terror – the instants when the mask the actor wears is suddenly askew, unfamiliar, an alienated guise from which he deliberately seeks the escape of an exit and the consoling rescue of a laugh. For it is those instants of laughter which heal our wounds, repair our courage, and which – after the initial distancing moment – bring about a new closeness and create a sparkling epiphany between actor and audience.