Performance » Theater

The Show Must Go On

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Painters, poets, photographers and many other artists have the luxury of time to watch their work come to fruition.

They have a chance to revise an errant passage or wipe away errors from the canvass.

In the performing arts and at certain other venues before live audiences there's no margin of error. No time for do-overs. It's an unforgiving tightrope walk, where often hundreds of spectators have shown up with high expectations. No matter what happens, the show must go on.

That's what makes them "fun or terrifying, depending on your perspective," according to Scott Stulen, curator of audience experience and performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Performers must sing, dance or emote regardless of whether they're suffering from sore throats, headaches, flus, upset stomachs, or just free-form anxiety. The stage awaits, even if they have a nagging cough, congestion, exhaustion, strained muscles or diarrhea.

So how do they do it? How do they avert last-second, freak-out fests and flop sweat without a panic attack? Sky Blue Window asked some of Indy's cultural institutions – including one that hosts the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Here are some experiences and preventative tips from the artists and staff who work with them:


Forgotten prop

No prop? No problem. Paul Hansen calls on quick thinking to make up for a misplaced prop. -  - COURTESY ZACH ROSING
  • Courtesy Zach Rosing
  • No prop? No problem. Paul Hansen calls on quick thinking to make up for a misplaced prop.

Dance Kaleidoscope marketing director Paul Hansen was performing in a play at the Phoenix Theatre last season when he reached in his pocket for his phone, which was supposed to ring as a sound cue.

Only it was still sitting on his dressing room table.

Inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch, he pulled out the "smallest imaginary phone," continuing the scene with his hand cupped between his ear and mouth. He hoped the audience would buy it and prayed the other actors on stage wouldn't laugh.

"I must have turned 50 shades of red," Hansen says. "... But that's what being a professional is all about. You don't always perform under completely ideal situations. It's not a film where you can shoot a scene 50 million times. Something happens, whether a prop isn't three or somebody jumps ahead three paces."


Forgotten lines

A few years ago he was singing a dramatic solo at an Actors Theatre of Indiana performance when his mind suddenly went blank.

"What came out can best be described as 'talking in tongues,'" Hansen says. "It was only for a few measures before I remembered the English language and what I supposed to be singing, but it felt like about five minutes."

But the thing was, no one--not even his friends in the audience--noticed. That disappointed him somewhat, since he's always assumed everyone's hanging on his every word when he's on stage. But it also taught him the lesson that one should just take such missteps in stride and not allow anxiety to take over.

"I guess the trick is to stay emotionally connected to the scene while your brain figures out how to fix the problem and move on," Hansen says.


Film projector on the fritz

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is prepared for the absolute worst-case scenario whenever it screens a film, whether in The Toby Theater or on the amphitheater outside. The museum always secures multiple copies of every film just in case, especially with 35mm versions, according to Stulen.

The IMA prepares for the worst, because that's what can happen. One might, for instance, face an impatient crowd of thousands chanting a demand to see cute cats videos, and see them now.

The video went down during the second Internet Cat Video Festival Stulen staged before a crowd of 12,000 on the grandstand at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. He worked for the Walker Art Center at the time and as the show host, he had to stall.

He and an assistant improvised on the fly for an hour when technical difficulties ensued.

"We made up a trivia contest, interviewed guests from the audience and told stories," he says. "And the audience never knew, but I think they were very tired of me toward the end of the hour when an aggressive chant of 'cats, cats, cats' started to boil. Fortunately by then we were ready to roll."

Performers shouldn't freak out in such situations, Stulen says. If they keep their composure, it will all work out in the end. "The biggest thing I have learned is to be able to roll with any situation that may unfold and not get flustered," he says. "The audience assumes its part of the show as long as it appears intentional and sometimes those 'disasters' make for an even better show."


Maladies

Phoenix Theatre Resident Stage Manager Chelsey Stauffer says actors use yoga and other exercise routines to stay in tip-top shape. They're attuned to their bodies and resort to a regimen of "water, water, water, sleep, sleep, sleep" if they feel sickness coming on.

Herbal teas, honey, lemon and ginger are among the natural remedies some performers enlist to soothe sore and scratchy throats. -
  • Herbal teas, honey, lemon and ginger are among the natural remedies some performers enlist to soothe sore and scratchy throats.

"Health issues can especially come up during musicals, because they are so demanding on the voice, body and mind," Stauffer explains. "We have had actors go to urgent care centers for Z-Paks and some have had to get steroids to clear up medical issues in order to open a show on time."

Many performance artists swear by herbal teas. But ultimately, they do what it takes to work through illness, she says.

"Sometimes the show simply must go on, and I have worked with actors who have had to vomit backstage before an entrance, and I would have no idea until they told me after the performance that it had happened," Stauffer says.


Backstage Barf Bucket

When Lori Raffel was directing A Christmas Story this past December at Theatre on the Square, a child actor got sick halfway through a show. So they put buckets for her at both sides of the stage and gave her a place to rest between scenes.

"Kids are so resilient," Raffel says. "She refused to go home before finishing the performance and curtain call."

Bill Simmons, the lead actor in David Hare's Skylight (which runs at TOTS through Feb. 22), was doing a performance of Fanfare for the Common Man when an actress he was working with began throwing up right before the show. She had to repeatedly walk off the set to vomit, so Simmons and other actors covered for her by making up dialogue on the spot.

Simmons confesses to having felt similarly sick himself, but he soldiered through. The seasoned stage actor suffered food poisoning during a Sunday matinee at the Phoenix Theatre, but he says somehow his adrenaline kicked in and carried him through to the curtain call.

"Just make sure you're as hydrated as possible," Simmons says. "Make sure to get plenty of fluids, and have plenty more on hand."


Flop sweat

Sweat happens. Even the most experienced performers get anxious and occasionally under the weather. But when the immune system fails them, some actors use it to their symptoms to their advantage.

Simmons was "sick as a dog" at a performance at Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan.

"Sweat was running down my head in rivulets," he recalls. "My body knew it was sick, but it kind of worked for the scene. I was in a funeral home, where my character was seeing his father's corpse for the first time."


When Phoenix Theatre staged American Idiot last summer, the production's intense dancing and singing required actors to amp up their hydration. - COURTESY PHOENIX THEATRE
  • Courtesy Phoenix Theatre
  • When Phoenix Theatre staged American Idiot last summer, the production's intense dancing and singing required actors to amp up their hydration.

Set malfunction

In one play at the Phoenix Theatre, an overhead light exploded, showering hot glass down on the actors. Fortunately however, Simmons was playing a bartender in the late 1960s during the scene in which it happened, and he had a bar rag in hand.

Instinct kicked in, and he used the rag to pick up all the hot shards of glass, as though nothing happened and it was all part of the scene.


Sore throats

For opera singers, their voices are finely tuned instruments. That's why they drink lots of water, exercise regularly, eat healthy and get enough sleep, says Carol Baker, director of Community Engagement for Indianapolis Opera.

"It's hard to live a rough life -- partying all night, drinking and dancing on tables and expect to have a voice the next morning," she says.

Some opera singers use Neti Pots for clearing their sinuses while suffering common head colds. -
  • Some opera singers use Neti Pots for clearing their sinuses while suffering common head colds.

They eschew fried foods or anything with a lot of acidity that can upset their stomachs, because acid reflux poses a serious threat of irritating vocal cords and has led opera singers to cancel performances and even three-month tours.

Sore throats might not bother most people, but then most people don't have to hit high Cs or sustain hours’ worth of singing, says Baker.

When stricken with sore throats, opera singers typically opt for natural curatives, such as honey and lemon, or using Neti Pots to clear their sinuses.

"Steroid and B12 shots are sometimes used if they are desperate, but they are not recommended," Baker adds.


Anxiety

Performing artists are professionals, but they're people too. Sometimes they're more sensitive than the general public, which goes hand-in-hand with creativity, Baker explains. They might get spooked by a backstage superstition, for instance.

Good producers know how to provide therapy to assuage last-minute "I can't go on" issues, she says. Sometimes the artists, who hail from all over the world, bring assistants specifically tasked with keeping them calm and focused.

When Baker worked with another arts organization, she even got a call from a psychic/therapist who claimed she could help them with any anxiety or personality issues before show time.

"Being an artist can be a curse or a gift," she says. "What they do is amazing, and it can be quite challenging, conjuring up talent on demand in a new city each day. What they do is hard. They dance for us. They sing for us. They do phenomenal artistry for us. They're always on the road and don't see their family and don't have their support system. Yet, they're ready to get on stage and do the magic we all know and love. We need to be accommodating."


Charlie Kimball keeps his health on track with a steady diet, especially during race weekend. -  - COURTESY INDYCAR
  • Courtesy INDYCAR
  • Charlie Kimball keeps his health on track with a steady diet, especially during race weekend.

Staying on Track

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Charlie Kimball maintains his personal health as meticulously as his pit crew attends to his prized ride. He must.

“Because I have Type 1 diabetes, I also make a few specific adjustments to help keep me healthy while on the track. I eat the same lunch every race weekend, which keeps my blood sugar levels stable and consistent before I get in the car,” says Kimball.

High-tech gadgets help too. He wears a special glucose monitor that continuously monitors his levels to his steering wheel (and directly to the engineering stand). When his levels dip too low, Kimball knows to drink tubes of liquids — one of water and another of orange juice — to quickly elevate his glucose levels.

Josef Newgarden powers through feeling puny, but he stresses the importance of adequate hydration when stomach bugs strike "on the road." -  - COURTESY INDYCAR
  • Courtesy INDYCAR
  • Josef Newgarden powers through feeling puny, but he stresses the importance of adequate hydration when stomach bugs strike "on the road."

“Really, it’s the prep all race weekend that helps ‘the show go on’ on race day,” he says.

When you’re revving up for the race and your gut starts to rumble, fellow Verizon IndyCar Series driver Josef Newgarden says hydration might be the only thing you can control, but it’s the main thing.

“If you have a stomach issue, you need to focus on fluids, because the main thing for us is hydration,” Newgarden says. “Even if we can’t get the proper nutrients from food and we’re not able to keep anything down, the next big thing we have to worry about is fluids. In extreme cases, you can get an IV if you really need one before the race.”

When you take your act on the road — literally on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval — for one day out of the year, Newgarden says race car drivers suck it up and move on to avoid the alternative.

“Mentally, you’ve got to just kind of grit your teeth and get on which it, because in racing if you can’t get in the car and do it, they are going to hire someone else to race the car that weekend,” says Newgarden. “No driver wants that. So no matter how sick you are, you’re going to try and make it seem less serious than it is.”

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