How Bad It Can Go: The Strange Pleasures Of Live Theater Gone Wrong
Sarah Jordan has written extensively for national and regional magazines and newspapers. She is also the author of four books and a regular contributor to the Festival Blog.
Only five minutes from the end of the show. Only five minutes. That’s what Pig Iron Theatre’s Quinn Bauriedel remembers thinking about his 2009 show machines machines machines machines machines machines machines when he found himself backstage wearing a black plastic bag covered in cereal and unable to bring his Rube Goldberg-ian masterpiece across the finish line. Moments earlier Bauriedel had been shot into “outer space” on a conveyor belt on a plank of wood. Fellow performer Geoff Sobelle had kicked the board to shoot him through a cat door leading offstage, but things hadn’t gone right with the stunt and Bauriedel had cracked his head on a two-by-four as he went through. (Someone said later it looked like a puppet head thrown against a wall.)
With Sobelle on stage and the injured actor still needing to run a light cue, Bauriedel knew his tingling head and diminishing sensation in his fingers and toes wasn’t good. He remembers wondering if he would be paralyzed. “It had been one of the great performing moments of my life, and I was five minutes away from the end,” he recalls. “But I couldn’t continue. What’s funny is that Geoff made an announcement that one of the actors was injured and we had to wrap it up, but the audience thought it was just the next level of the show with an actor hurting himself . . .five minutes later the audience is still waiting for something to happen.” The next thing was the EMTs carting Bauriedel off to the hospital.
“We had trained the audience to believe anything was possible,” says the actor.
Most of the time when things go wrong in life no one around you is watching. Or, if you do have witnesses, no one really cares anyway. But when things go wrong in theater . . . well, it’s theater! Nothing produces a sheet of flop sweat and a burst of adrenaline for an actor like a brain freeze during the middle of a monologue, unplanned audience participation or malfunctioning stage equipment. But nothing grabs our attention as a member of the audience like the potential of some theatrical disaster.
We talked with Quinn Bauriedel, co-founder and co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company, and Joe Canuso, producing artistic director of Theatre Exile, to discuss the risks of live theater and what makes it so compelling to the audience.
“First of all,” says Bauriedel. “this is one of my favorite topics. It is Pig Iron’s obsession to find and observe what happens in those moments. We’ve done plays that try to recreate that. The audience is always waiting for moments of real live theater gone wrong, waiting for that car crash.”
There is something about bearing witness to live theater’s mishaps that creates a unique chemistry and a bond between the players and audience. It stays burned into the memory of an audience member by its exclusivity of experience. No other show that follows will include this particular mishap—one hopes. It adds a peculiar value and luster to the night in question. It endows bragging rights to claim that you were there on that special night when X, Y, or Z happened.
Bauriedel refers to Philip Astley, an eighteenth-century Englishman considered to be the father of the modern circus, who identified this very dynamic. “Astley would present this show, a cavalcade of horses with the riders performing stunts,” he says. “When all went well, the audience would leave impressed with the feats of agility and come back in six months. But when someone would try to flip from horse to horse, fall and get carted off, people would leave amazed and come back the next night for more.”
Astley noted the crowd’s predilection and passion for danger. He began to train his riders to fall in spectacular ways that would look like they were hurt, when they actually were not. “People enjoyed witnessing human failure,” says Bauriedel. “This is the role of clowns. Every culture has clowns. We need him to screw up in front of us so when we screw up, we don’t feel so lonely. He does in public what we do in private. That’s why we want to watch something go wrong.”
So in addition to feeling bonded in a communal experience as an audience member, we also feel some kind of primal psychic relief when we witness someone else screwing up, and surviving the shame.
Sometimes the people involved feel no shame and it becomes a chance to see how the actors handle adversity. Joe Canuso recalls a performance at Plays & Players back in the 1970s, in which he was a part of the cast. It was a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play about a 1930s Chicago mobster.
“The director decided to have a real car from the 1930s drive right onto the stage with headlights blazing into the audience during the St. Valentine’s Day massacre scene. ‘It’ll be great,’ he said. So the theater has a big garage door at the back that backs onto Panama Street, which is pretty narrow. The car is positioned perpendicularly out there on the street with the stage door wide open so the car can drive right onto the stage.
“So we are all on stage with our machine guns when all the sudden a neighbor from down the street wearing Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, walks in from Panama Street onto the stage yelling, ‘Who parked that car out on the street like that?!’ He couldn’t get his car out, but he didn’t care or realize that we were all pointing guns at him or that he was in the middle of this play. What do you do? There’s no line you could ad lib that would explain a guy walking into a warehouse in the middle of this massacre wearing Bermuda shorts, complaining about a car.”
Sometimes you just need the audience’s forgiveness. Canuso and Bauriedel agree that audiences are generally supportive. Canuso explains the complicated desires of the typical audience. They have paid for their tickets so they want to experience something good to justify their money, but despite the built in empathy, they also crave the risk and danger that a live performance promises. The threat of potential catastrophe is addictive. The audience joneses for that “threat,” but not for the actual disaster.
“We go to live theater, knowing that anything could happen,” says Canuso. “Not that we sit there and wait for bad things to happen, but the fact that it could is always inherent in going to live theater. People like it when you take a risk. They don’t necessarily want to see failure, but for the play to succeed and for it to be close to failure. It’s like going to the circus, where there’s a certain danger involved, but the performers are so skilled that they come close to danger, then escape it.”
These brushes with disaster can boost levels of engagement for all present. Canuso describes Theater Exile’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or the Rape Play in 2010 when a woman in the audience became so agitated by the content of the play that she stood up and began verbally abusing the actors. “That’s the thrill of live theater,” adds Canuso with a laugh. The actors let her say her piece before she stormed out with a slam of the door.
“The audience sat there stunned, and then the actors picked up the play again. It energized everybody. You go into a different gear and as an audience member your senses are more aware, more heightened. You are no longer passive about what you’re watching.”
So as an actor there are two fairly universal rules to deal with sudden unexpected theatrical disaster: to breathe and to acknowledge to the audience what’s happening.
“When you are faced with something that’s really making you panic,” explains Bauriedel, “breathing is incredibly important. Your fight or flight instinct kicks in and we freeze up and become unable to think. Breathing can give you confidence and gets oxygen to your brain.
“And whether on a date, interview or at the theater, people like when the truth is being told and that you acknowledge what’s going on. It allows you to move on… as a general rule being open like that shifts the dynamic. It unmasks you and in many situations we yearn for that genuine connection.”
Veteran actor Tom McCarthy’s work in an early performance of Bruce Graham’s play, The Philly Fan, demonstrates this concept perfectly. Canuso was directing the seasoned pro in this one-man play.
“He had tech rehearsal the same day as we opened, so Tom was worn out, and had only started learning lines, yet he was onstage all by himself. So it was a perfect storm for disaster,” says the director. “We decided to have someone sit under the bar and whisper lines to him if he needed them. So the first time he got stuck, the guy whispers to Tom, but he can’t hear him. He is leaning down more and more, saying ‘What? What?’ Finally Tom says to the audience, “I gotta go get the thing. Talk amongst yourselves,’ and they just roar. Tom walks past the tech staff and comes back with the script. He throws it down on bar and gets huge applause. The funny thing is he never used it the rest of night. And it was a great night. People didn’t lose a beat. If they see an actor panic, they start panicking. They don’t know how to help, but if an actor handles the moment with grace, charm and humor, then they will go with you.” And they did.
And Bauriedel, who famously had that show-ending neck injury during machines, concludes about accidents in the theater, “It makes the moments when everything works so much sweeter because you know how bad it can go.”