When you are just starting out on an acting career it is important to understand the common mistakes that could end up costing you a career. Often these mistakes are made by simply a lack of awareness, and these are things that good actor training and acting classes can help you to avoid. That said, even the best actors can make these mistakes. What’s important is that you know how you can work to ironing them out, and preferably before they happen!
Why Do Actors Make These Mistakes?
Quite simply, because we are dealing with living people. And human error is the touch-paper for almost everything! Add to that the very real live “in-the-moment” scenario we are all placed in as performer, things inevitably go wrong, and it is up to us to put them right. Will you be fired for making a mistake. Of course not, but if you repeatedly commit some of the errors listed below, you will find your work dwindling.
Keeping The Performance Fresh
Complacency is probably one of the biggest mistakes everyone makes when performing. It is not that an actor is becoming consciously complacent. Far from it. Actors are required to repeat their performances to different audiences and to keep it fresh. That’s easier said than done. If you are working on a production, whether that is a week-long amateur dramatics production or you are currently on a year-long contract with the RSC, you are expected to deliver the same performance with the same levels of commitment and energy as you did on opening night. If you are working on a professional production this would usually mean 8 performances per week over a number of months. That is a lot of repetition!
Stale performances are a common side effect. This can cause the production to become dull and lifeless for an audience, but also for the co-actors on stage. If the cast does not work hard at raising energy and re-finding or rediscovering their connection with the production then the symptoms persist. It is vital that you ensure your performance remains enthused and connected, the audience wants to enjoy your performance and you have a responsibility to ensure they do.
Many professional troupes spend time reigniting their performances by keeping each other interested. Minor variances in stage positioning, a little playfulness in delivery and character interaction can often be all that is required to ensure the production maintains its liveliness. In some instances, especially in panto, the cast will find alternative humour to keep energy going – introducing small props and in-jokes that keep the energy high. Of course, anything that is introduced must not impact on the play (that would be selfish), and should not become a distraction for the audience.
But minor alterations can make a significant difference. Above everything, little changes require a new focus from the actors, and recreates the initial outing of a show.
Whose Line Is it Anyway?
Forgetting lines on stage happens to both seasoned performers and amateur players alike. You might very well be the most conscientious actor, and you have had your lines learned since day one of rehearsal, but sometimes the memory just ‘slips’. Things happen in our daily lives that can cause us to momentarily become distracted, or our focus accidentally shifts. Lines get lost.
Losing our place in the script is a common occurrence when we have been performing the same role over and over. If you’re on performance 57 of a lengthy production run, your mind can play tricks on you. You feel like you have already said your line (because, in the truth of who you are as an actor, you HAVE said it before). Your mind forgets that you just haven’t said it yet in THIS performance. But the result is a missed line. And that means there needs to be some immediate recovery on stage.
Losing lines or forgetting lines requires some quick thinking, spontaneous improvisation and some solid team work to get out of trouble. The most important thing is not to panic. In the first instance, if it is a line that has just fudged the entire scene, is to get the audience back on track. If you need to do this on your own as an actor, simply remain in character and speak in character until you get the narrative back in synch. Trust that the work you have done in creating your character will provide you with enough material to re-engage with the script. Do not drop character. Improvise your way back to the plot.
I once worked with a young actress in training who was playing Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While she did not forget her lines, the actor playing Puck did not come on stage during a performance on cue because they had momentarily thought they were coming on at a different point. As a result there was a huge potential for dead-space on stage. This didn’t. I watched in bewilderment (and just a touch of teacher-pride) as Oberon began ad-libbing (improvising) a ream of text in Shakespearean verse complete with rhyming couplets. Not only did it sound like the bard had written it, but it also made perfect sense and gave time enough for Puck to get to the stage. It was astounding, and the audience did not realise that a major mistake had occurred.
This is a fantastic example of how teamwork is imperative to covering mistakes on stage. Understanding that all actors have responsibility for steering the production means that the cast as a collective whole should take responsibility for supporting one another when things go wrong. By being able to contribute to getting the scene back to where it should be would make it seamless to an audience.
It Is Not All About “You”!
At whatever cost, no actor should ever attempt to steal limelight and upstage their fellow performers. By this I mean purposefully seeking the audience’s attention. Milking every ounce of comedy out of a line and seeking more and more laughs from the audience is selfish. The lines are comic. Do not become overcome by the intoxicating energy that an audience can provide when you hear them laughing. You’ve had your moment. Now let it subside.
You should also avoid an stage activity that is purposefully attracting the audience’s attention to you. Not just talking loudly, or grotesque physical animation. Sometimes you can upstage without intending to. In a production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that I directed, the actor playing Ruckley did such a good job that the audience were only talking about that character as they left. It was a fantastic characterisation, and the intensity of the eyes and subtlety of the physicality drew the audience’s focus to that role. This is great on one hand (the actor was doing an amazing job), but the energy of the performance then shifted to accommodate that role and the audience did not pay attention to the important elements of the script. Was this selfish? Not on a personal level, but yes it was as a collective ensemble piece. The actor needed to become aware that they were upstaging and realign themselves to becoming part of the production on the same level.
If you feel that something you are doing on stage is always pulling focus, or that you are always playing for laughs then you need to consult your director and/or fellow cast mates to work out what is happening and pick up some guidance to help you stop upstaging. Intentional or not, it becomes unfair on your colleagues, but also on the audience.
I Say It Again… It is NOT All About You
Teamwork (or loss of teamwork) is a major mistake that happens on stage. As a cast (unless it is a one-person show) you have a duty to support one another and to work together to creating an evening of theatre for an audience. To forget your duty means you are working for yourself only and you are not fulfilling the audience’s expectations nor are you taking responsibility in forming strong team commitments to the collective whole.
If you find that you are not playing as part of the team you will build a reputation. Egos can become fractured and people become irritated. This can only result in a lack of focus and lack of shared energy on stage. This is a dangerous mistake to make.
Longevity in the theatre world requires that you are a selfless teamworker, and that (whether you are a major role or the third spear-bearer on the right) you are all contributing to the finished product. This is never about “You”, in fact it is not really about “Us”. It is about what the final production looks like to an audience, and they will reward you all with their applause at the end.