The show must go on...but when does being a "pro" become a no-no?
April 4, 2008 - 00:50.
During my weekly radio show days, there were times when I felt woozy with a cold, but I would slog it out for two hours anyway because the listening audience was doing their part, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Callers said my voice sounded sultry, which is fine. But had I crossed the line into froggy, I would have hired a sub or pieced together a “best of” show.
Vocal chord martyrdom is silly. I once heard a laryngitic colleague croaking out her on-air interviews, and vowed that I would never make listeners suffer like that. I understood her position—when you’re a pro, it’s “on with the show.” But when the malady becomes the performance, a real pro will step aside for the sake of the audience.
Twice in the past few months, I’ve witnessed the machismo of seasoned and talented actors who should have been lying in bed but chose the spotlight instead. They were not doing their fans any favors.
At the Penumbra, the whole cast was sick for a week during August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. For the most part you couldn’t tell, and both the cast and the director deserve kudos for that. But I attended two performances, and at the second one, Ansa Akyea could barely speak, let alone bellow as befit his character, Boy Willie. Plus he kept on breaking out into a pre-projectile vomiting sweat. It made me nervous. Even though a good stand-in is hard to find, Ansa and director Lou Bellamy ought to have found one or postponed the performance, if only for that single night.
That was nothing compared to the incident at the Illusion Theater Saturday, however. In the midst of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Mrs. Mannerly, Barbara June Patterson fell. She fell quietly, and during a moment when attention was focused on co-lead Phyllis Wright’s monologue. But when Barbara got up, she was bleeding. Blood was running down her neck and formed a blotch on the side of her head that soaked through her white hair, like she’d been shot.
Not missing a beat, Phyllis strode over to help her up, as might have been expected from her character, the young Jeffrey Hatcher in manners class. Barbara June responded in kind. Then Phyllis turned to the audience and said, “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to stop.”
“We’ll keep going,” corrected Barbara.
“You’re bleeding!” protested Phyllis.
Barbara June grabbed a napkin—one of the props—and swabbed at the blood dripping into the neckline of her dress. She couldn’t see it, but we in the audience could. Anxiety swirled about the house. No longer engaged in the story, we just wanted to know if Barbara June would be all right. We wanted her to lie down. We didn’t want to see any more blood.
“We can continue. I’m fine,” Barbara said.
So they stepped back into character and finished out the play.
I would have called it professionalism had the theater staff announced an unscheduled intermission while they took care of the bleeding. But they let the actors soldier it out, and I think that was a mistake. Director Michael Robins should have been the one to make the call.
People whispering in the lobby afterward said, “She’s amazing. What a pro.” And I didn’t say anything. I was secretly appalled. Barbara June could be my grandmother. She was bleeding from the head. People gasped and whispered all throughout the final scenes. That’s not a play—it’s an episode of ER, and I was in it.
I watched Phyllis escort Barbara to the elevator, en route to the hospital to get the injury checked out. Producing director Bonnie Morris said that Barbara had been wearing a bobby pin right where her head hit the floor, and that it probably broke the skin. “You know how our heads bleed,” she said. Yeah, but I don’t want to wonder if she’s having a brain aneurism, and neither does the rest of the audience, I thought.
As truly as I believe the motivations of the actors and directors were to avoid disappointing ticket-holders, I am disappointed anyway. People enjoy theater because it takes us out of ourselves; we want the actors to become their characters so that we, too, can imagine ourselves differently. If the play is interrupted by an accident, or if an actor is too ill to accurately convey the essence of a character, the ticket-holders should be compensated by a free pass for another night, and someone from the cast or the director should make a brief apology from the stage. People would understand. And if they didn’t, shame on them. Professionalism is one thing; insisting that the audience sit through a different performance than the one shown on their ticket is another.
I wouldn’t be so hard on well-respected actors and theater companies if I hadn’t witnessed better handling of similar issues. In 1995, Donny Osmond played Joseph in the touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I saw it at the State Theatre. Donny was fantastic—he sang and danced and kept me captive through Act I. Before Act II began, the “voice of God” announced that a stand-in would play Joseph for the rest of the show. I don’t recall that actor’s name, but I do remember a smooth transition. Turns out Donny was sick and throwing up between scenes. But the story continued. I got the show I had paid to see, and I admired both Donny and his stand-in equally.
Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in Broadway’s Wicked, made a similar impression on me, although I didn’t see the show the night she fell through a trap door and cracked a rib. It was the second-to-last night, and Idina retired to the green room. Heartbreak! But get this—on closing night, she made a special out-of-costume appearance, performed her final song, and received a standing ovation. Instead of making her audience suffer through the injury with her, Idina risked their ire by sitting out and ultimately gained their adoration.
Epilogue: Word has it that both Ansa Akyea and Barbara June Patterson are doing fine. I hope they and their directors realize that I’m not so much calling into question their professionalism, as I am admonishing them to be not quite so stoically Minnesotan about it next time.