I was in the middle of a monologue when my lines disappeared, erased from my brain like a computer disc by a magnet. Time stretched and indecision congealed; in that moment I couldn’t have told you the name of the play, let alone what I was supposed to say next.
Theater people are superstitious. We practice routines. Another actor asked what I had done differently that day. I’d rehearsed all of my lines twice (I usually ran them once.) Don’t ever do that again, she said. As Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis proclaimed in Bull Durham, “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, THEN YOU ARE.”
At its best, live theater can bring situations and ideas to life. It is unmistakably created in the moment, for the audience right there in the room. Performers adjust their rhythm, waiting for laughter or applause, riding the energy of the crowd. The coordination of acting, sound, lights, props, set and effects often works so well, it can be surprising when something fails.
Why do we do this? We burrow into someone’s psyche and repeat words crafted by a playwright, move as a director suggests, under lights and in front of witnesses we’re supposed to pretend aren’t there. It all takes weeks to understand, memorize, and coordinate. The illusion can be lost in an instant.
My heart beat erratically and the blood rushed in my ears. Eventually I confessed that I had no idea what to say; the stage manager hollered a cue and I started again. The character took over and the fearful, inadequate actor receded. Tonight, we do it again.