Monday, 1 July 2013

The stare of a 1000 deaths

 by Greg Bepper

There are many perils that befall an actor on stage or live television. The most soul destroying being: the stare of a thousand deaths.

Forgetting your lines; AKA Drying, with a multitude of concentrated eyes fixed directly at you, hence creating this frightening phenomenon.

Within a micro-moment, your eyes glaze over. Your pupils quiver. Your brain bounces back and forward in your head causing your skin to go cold and clammy. It seems like minutes before an utterance comes forth out of your mouth again, when in fact, it's been less than a couple of seconds.

You have to say something; anything, to cover the fact that you have dried. Eventually, you will get back on track, a little shell shocked but the scene will continue. Of course you may have a fellow actor 'save' you to help jog your memory. This can be in the form of a question or they may even spin your line around and say it for you. Whatever happens the audience must be none the wiser.

Have I ever been struck by the stare?
If I answered no, you wouldn't believe me because I certainly wouldn't believe any actor who said they had not. It's a fact of theatrical life. The aim here is to be so well prepared, so well trained, that when it strikes you can breeze right through it.

There has been one time in my career when I could almost claim a dry free run. Back in the mid eighties, a ten month stint on the Australian television soapie: Sons and Daughters, I was dry free every scene until the second last on my final day, I blew it. So close but no cigar! 

At other times, on stage or set, I have been waiting in the wings, or behind a film/TV set door to make my entrance with no idea of any word in my first line. In film or television you have the safety net of simply yelling out "What's my first line?" On stage, you're net free. Your only option is to enter and pray your opening line spurts out. It usually does. It's one of the miracles in live theatre that scares your brain into automatic. 

It's all in the work
Ian McKellan, The actual 'doing' is his fun time
Drying does not mean you are a bad actor but drying constantly means you need to spend more time in preparation and revision. It takes work but ultimately, as a professional, that's what you are paid to do. 

In an interview I saw with Ian McKellan (Gandalf: Lord of the Rings) he said, the learning of lines, developing the character, rehearsals; this was the work, this is for what he is paid. The actual 'doing' is his fun time. 

Hello, is this thing on? I'm dying here! 
The thousand deaths can also rear its head in other forms. You may have heard an actor say they have died on stage. This does not mean they physically ceased to be, although sometimes you wished you had, just to get some kind of reaction from a 'tough' audience, especially in a comedy.
'the beast' [the audience]
No two audiences are the same. In fact, you could have exactly the same audience two performances in a row and the reactions would be different. Although they are there for you to take them on a brief escape, outside influences always creep in. The type of day they encounter before arriving at the theatre, world events that day, the weather, the car park, the pre-theatre dinner, the size of the audience, age range, their seat, the behaviour of people around them, a late opening curtain, all factor into 'the beast' [the audience] that performance.

With a 'dead' audience, the sound of shuffling feet, coughing and crickets, induces the stare to appear, as your mouth moves and words project outwards while your brain is trying to work out; what you need to do to awaken the beast and get the play to a level of at least breathing. 

Death by props
Never trust a prop
Never expect or trust a prop or working set piece to do what it is designed to do, on cue. Their uncooperativeness is the catalyst for yet another thousand deaths.

This includes: stage or set doors and windows that won't open or close, lights that don't light, lighters that don't light, books that fall apart, chairs that fall apart, feather boas that molt, flowers that droop, pencils that break, pens that leak, guns that don't fire, fire that smokes, smoke that chokes, and the list goes on.

In essence, if you have a working prop or set piece, have a back up plan to avoid the stare.

With a little help from my friends..

Now, to avoid having to relate some of my other close encounters with death on stage, which would only have you shaking your head wondering why I ever gave up my day job. I have recruited a few of my actor colleagues, who are brave enough to let you into their inner circle with a few of their thousand deaths anecdotes.

Denise Roberts
Denise Roberts
I met Denise early in her career when I was teaching at a North Sydney Drama School in the 1980's. Denise has been a familiar face on Australian television since then in long running shows such as GP, Packed To The Rafters, Mrs Biggs,  Blood Brothers, Razzle Dazzle and Always Greener, just to name a few. 

These days, while still continuing her acting career, she is also the Principal & CEO of SCREENWISE Film & TV School for Actors  

"Over 20 years ago I was performing in a play at the Ensemble Theatre directed by Crispin Taylor called FOUR PORTRAITS OF MOTHERS by Arnold Wesker.  It was a special presentation in honour of Hayes Gordon. The play was four one woman monologues. 

This was my very first time performing a monologue directly to the audience and on stage completely on my own, and as you can imagine, I was pretty apprehensive.  During rehearsals, the lovely Carol Willesee who was starring in one of the monologues tried to allay my anxiety by telling me that she always keeps a glass of water backstage with her script and if she dries on stage, she simply says she's going to get a drink, walks off stage then has a quick look at the script and enters back on stage with the water.  But there was no way I was going to do that...I was a professional.

On opening night, I entered with my shopping trolley full of groceries and started talking to the audience.  All of a sudden I dried.  My head began buzzing with panic, my spirit left my body and floated above me watching me as I kept flicking through the groceries trying desperately to remember my lines.  Then all of a sudden an overwhelming sensation came over me and I looked up and said 'SHIT .. THE MILK!  and ran off leaving my shopping trolley centre stage.  My intention was to run in to the dressing room, have a quick look at my lines grab some milk from the dressing room fridge and then come back on.  However, the stage manager who had been listening to everything...had already grabbed the milk from the fridge..and as I came off she handed me the milk straight away, leaving me with no choice but to turn around and run straight back on with the milk in hand and still not knowing my lines!

That was my first experience at ad-libbing.  I went on and on about escalating prices, the state of the shopping trolleys and whatever else I could come up with until my lines came back to me.  It was nerve wracking, but the audience including Hayes Gordon were falling off their seats with laughter."

Denise's IMDb Filmography

Coral Drouyn
Coral Drouyn
I worked with Coral in the 1980's in the ill fated Australian television series: Arcade.

Coral is what we in the biz call a 'real trouper' who has been treading the boards since she was a child; which was not all that long ago. That's brownie points for me!

Coral is also a screen writer and has written for such Australian shows as: Prisoner, Neighbours, Blue Heelers and Home & Away.

Currently, as well as her acting career, Coral is a reviewer and feature writer for Stage Whispers

"Okay....I came to Australia in 1962, and was the ingénue in a Tivoli revue called Paris by Night. We did a sketch, in medieval costumes, called Opera without Music....I was (at 17) supposed to be the "Old" Contralto.

There was a long pause for me, standing on the OP side down stage while my Dad Terry O'Neill did his shtick. Bored, I started counting the house. It probably was no more than 10 seconds but I suddenly realised there was silence on stage. I looked round and there was my Dad, and Avril Angers the female comedian...just glaring at me.

I'd missed my cue completely while counting the house. The audience started to laugh. I was mortified. After glaring, my Dad covered for me and said something like " Don't mind her, she's doing her homework!" because every one had seen how very young I was in other parts of the show. Fortunately it gave me enough time to try a line....the wrong Dad said "try another one" this time we were getting more laughs from me drying than from the sketch itself!"

Coral's IMDb Filmography

Alan Cinis 
Alan Cinis
I've known Alan since I was seventeen. His lovely Mum (Jean) was my very first Theatrical Agent.

I have also had the pleasure of working with this very talented an comedic actor in fringe theatre.

Alan's career spans over forty years with such Australian Film & Television credits as: Water Rats, Grass Roots, All Saints, Home & Away & Oyster Farmer. 

"Doing 'Stand Up' is tough, it is really obvious when you're not winning the audience over. I was paid a motza to do a Birthday Party in a RSL Club way out West (Sydney).

The whole family was there and generations from fossils to babies. I don't work blue as such and everything I did was little yarns and impressions and chatty jokes.

This mob were clearly unhappy and wanted quick fire, one line jokes and they wanted them foul. I can't do nasty jokes in front of children nor elderly people for that matter.

They heckled me and said tell up some filthy jokes. I wouldn't and they said, "Don't worry about it! Do you have a writer for your material?" I said "Yes." (it was my friend at the time Mal Frawley) They said, "Fire him." Had a long drive back to Sydney feeling like rubbish. But if you can do 'Stand Up' you can do practically anything."
Alan's IMDb Filmography  

Fran Margan (Keeling)
In the late 1970's Fran and I were members of a Fringe Theatre Co in North Sydney, although we never performed together. Fran is 'old hand' at life on the road with touring companies; and the all stories that go with touring.

These days she has hit the long and travelled road of archaeology and is an educator at Sydney University's Nicholson Museum and Archaeologist at The Australian Museum

"An Arts Council tour of an Aykbourne. There was no communication between back stage and the hall - so lighting had to climb out the gents' room window to get to the desk, which was at the back of the auditorium.

The window was so high that we had to park the car under it, for him to climb out safely. Just before interval, the CWA ladies turned on the urn to prepare for supper. The stage lights blew. Oh Merimbula! "

Author: Greg Bepper © 2013
Artistic Director
Greg Bepper's Thunderbolt Theatre & Film Productions


  1. My all-time worst moment on stage was when I resprained my ankle... not only did I freeze on my line, I was doing everything humanly possible to keep from hurling on stage!

    1. OUCH!... Getting injured on stage and still continuing is the mark of a real Pro... Well done!

  2. My worst moment was when I went to try out for Steel Magnolias for a local small theater. I happened to be the only true Southern belle there and thought I had it in the bag. But I was laughing so hysterically at the Yankees trying to sound like Southerners ---and could not understand what the heck they were saying either! And I did not get the part! I never tried out for anything else!

    1. LOL.... Know what you mean. I was in a production of 'The Rainmaker' in the late '70's down here in Australia... It was a huge mixture of southern accents during rehearsals. The dialect coach soon sorted all that out! ... Shame you never audtioned again... It's never too late ya know! Thx for sharing your story.

  3. Have a Rock and Roll Tuesday!

  4. Going up on your lines is the worst! Luckily, there's almost always some amazingly fast-on-their-feet actor who fills the awkward silence with something helpful-- or at least funny.

    When I was doing the national tour of Legally Blonde: The Musical, we had dogs onstage for much of the show. When they go up on their lines, it's the cutest thing you've ever seen!

    1. Yep, this is wahy you don't make enemies of any of your fellow cast members . Thanks for sharing your story Matthew.

  5. Love the great illustrations, I bet knowing so many people are watching and aware of any mishap or mistake makes it doubly difficult.

    1. Thanks Sheri... some mishaps from non working props, the audience is certainly aware. It's what the actor does to get everything back on track AND the audience's mind off it, is the tricky part

  6. Greg, this was terrific to read. This is the first time I've heard the term "drying," but I can see how apropos it is. I enjoyed the vignettes as well.
    Recently I started watching a series of videos posted by Jimmy Fallon that are short vignettes by comedians talking about the worst night they ever bombed. So much of what I've seen/heard remind me of your post. I have to think there are universal experiences for all performers, whether actors, comedians or musicians, where "things don't go well."
    I appreciate the opportunity to read and learn, and especially enjoy interesting content, so thank you for sharing this post with the world :-)


    1. It's universal alright Terri... dying on stage doesn't discriminate! :D Thanks so much for taking the time to read it. Glad you enjoyed it, cheers

  7. Mentors are crucial for every professional's personal development. What a blessing that you've had so many!