Acting like a duck

You keep paddling like the clappers,
Just keep paddling with your flappers,
While seeming to be dreaming and calm.
Just beneath the surface
You may struggle to get by.
But nothing can deter you
If you hold your head up high.

So sing a mother and son pair of ducks in Honk! as the ugly duckling learns to swim.  The image of a duck or swan gliding serenely across the water while its legs are working nineteen to the dozen beneath the surface is particularly apt for theatre.  No matter how polished a performance the audience may experience, you can guarantee that backstage is complete chaos, involving many people whose existence would surprise the paying punters in the audience.  Actors may be dashing about at breakneck speed, changing costumes and locating props.  Crew members all in black will be changing microphones, getting sets into position, acting as crowd control, clearing the stage of hazards, grappling with velcro, safety pins and gaffa tape.  There’ll be a deputy stage manager constantly whispering into his or her headpiece to communicate with cast, crew, lighting people, sound people and more.  Miles of electrical cable coil like snakes around the building, clothing rails are hidden in the strangest places, the sewing machine is very rarely turned off and at any given point, several people will be in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

I have written before about the insane amount of work that went into the Preparation Fugue in Me and My Girl and about the trials and tribulations of the costume changes in Dido and Aeneas, but all shows are like this to some extent or other.  The poor stage hand who had what seemed like 2 seconds to clear up the blood from the stage between the end of Tosca and the curtain calls springs to mind.  Or the ludicrously fast microphone relay which went on backstage during Cabaret, as our limited supply of radio mics was passed from performer to performer as one left the stage and the next arrived.  And that’s without any of the inevitable disasters of costumes ripping, props going on vacation, pieces of set getting stuck or actors accidentally making their way to the wrong side of the stage.  No matter how serene the stage picture, there’s a pair of legs thrashing like mad somewhere to keep it looking the way it’s meant to look.

My primary experience in the theatre is as a performer, but I’ve done my share of backstage duty as well (and thus believe that all actors should do some backstage work to get an appreciation for what the crew actually do), and know how much of a challenge it is.  Theatrical sets are often like enormous jigsaw puzzles that seem to weigh as much as a herd of elephants, yet need to be moved into place swiftly and, if possible, silently.  Lighting and sound cues need to be executed with split second precision.  And as for actors!  They seem to enjoy being in the wrong place when you need to fetch them for their next moment on stage, or standing in exactly the place you need to get to in order to execute the next scene change.  Dressed from head to toe in black in cramped, hot conditions, a show can be just as exhausting for crew as it is for the cast.

Last week, during Kiss Me, Kate, I certainly had my share of ‘duck on the water’ moments, some of them a regular part of the show, but others spontaneous.  I was one of several people with quick changes of costume, often performed in the wings or the quick change room just next to the stage.  The leading lady had a costume change mid way through one of the first scenes, which had to be done very quickly and very close to the stage.  My function at this point, as it was between my bits of the scene, was crowd control for the ensemble, who chose that moment to arrive in the wings ready for their next scene.  More alarming was Tuesday night, when the props lady realised that a copy of Vogue magazine (which was supposed to be used in the dressing rooms set in Scene Three) had been taken on stage by one of the actors and was currently sitting in the stage doorman’s box in Scene Two.  There was, unfortunately, only one way to rescue it.  I made my way around to the stage right wing and waited for the box to be wheeled off.  As soon as it was out of sight of the audience, I reached in and grabbed the Vogue while the box was still moving, then hared around the back of the set with it, ready to make my entrance from stage left with the third line of the next scene.  Just about catching my breath, I knocked, entered and, while doing my piece of dialogue, showed the Vogue to the leading lady and placed it on the furniture as if this was what my character normally did.  And another night, the leading lady’s hat from the final scene went walkabout, and several of us had to run around backstage in a frantic hunt for it, which ended mere seconds before she had to go on and (integral to the plot, this) take the blasted thing off again.

All of this running around is often necessary to putting on a decent show (and believe me, last week I had an awful lot of running around to do, even when nothing had gone wrong), but it is absolutely imperative to maintain that illusion, ‘seeming to be dreaming and calm’.  The most audacious example I’ve ever known, which fills me with admiration to this day was when I did A Doll’s House at school.  The girl (or young woman, I suppose, as we were in the sixth form) playing my wife Nora was absolutely wonderful, but one night she forgot the words of her monologue.  Rather than ask for a prompt, she delivered the last line she could remember, picked something up from the table contemplatively, walked off the stage, grabbed a copy of the script and looked at it, then picked up one of two cases that the maid normally brought on later in the scene and walked back on to complete the monologue.  One audience member later praised her “brilliant use of the pause”.  It just goes to show.  Look like you’re gliding, and the audience will never notice the legs thrashing away below the surface, whether they are yours or somebody else’s.  Act like a duck on the river, and nobody will think twice.  You can always collapse later!

  1. Ahh, now I understand the analogy! Yes, one of the many first rules of any performance is not to let the audience know that you know that something’s gone wrong/is really difficult!


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