Seán Patrick Judge was in the middle of an important monologue when he felt a tickle on his cheek followed, by a horrified scream from the audience. The tickle was a cockroach. One who had been previously been hiding out on a jacket Judge put on as part of his character’s stage direction. The insect was now happily and quickly scuttling its way up Judge’s neck and face toward his mouth. A mouth that was busily open, delivering lines.
“Fortunately, by the time the cockroach moved over my lips, I was close-mouthed and in a lightning-fast moment, swiped it off my lips and to the ground and completed my monologue,” says Judge. But like any normal person, the nerves of steel he displayed on stage dissolved into the reaction, no doubt, most of you had just reading about this. “As soon as I got off stage, I was completely overtaken by the heebie-jeebies for much of the night.”
They may rehearse, they may be perfectly prepared, they may do the same show night after night with no issue, but theater is a live endeavor. An art form not immune to distractions, mishaps, screw-ups, and unforeseen intrusions. It’s one of the reasons we love going to a show. There’s just something dangerously exciting about seeing people in the flesh, with no safety net, paint a picture for us. Normally that energy goes swimmingly and the actors and the audience both get the show they expect. But what about when it doesn’t? How do performers deal with things when they go wrong?
We asked Houston actors to share some of their favorite funny/crazy/weird moments on stage and the stories poured in. All manner of calamities have happened to the men and women we see onstage and while each tale is unique, the examples given seemed to organize themselves generally into four categories – critters, booze, actor mishap and physical issues.
While Judge runs away with the award for the creepiest critter experience, he is by no means alone in being joined onstage by unwelcome and cringe-inducing non-humans.
Elizabeth Marshall Black was performing in the midst of weeks and weeks of rain in Houston. The kind of rain that causes all manners of critters to seek higher, drier ground. “One lucky rat looking for shelter made his way into the theater and up onto the stage during a scene, where he proceeded to skitter across the set's dining room, right in front of me, almost running over my foot,” says Black.
Not satisfied with alarming the actors on set, the rat then squeezed himself underneath the scene’s front door. “I still remember seeing his little rat butt disappear under the doorframe,” says Black. One of my fellow actors was behind that door, waiting to make an entrance. I heard her startled yelp and thought, YEP. THAT WAS RAT! But as the saying goes, the show must go on.”
Alcohol and theater can, in modest hands, be a lovely combination. A little tipple before the show to prepare for an evening of make-believe. But far too often an audience member will have far too much, and that can result in some dicey situations.
David Rainey found this out in his first show at the Alley Theater, a production that, as part of its set design, had stairs from the house aisles up to the stage. “We were in performance one night when a woman got up out of her seat, walked up the steps and sat on the stage floor facing us,” says Rainey. “I was new, so I wasn't quite sure what was going on.” The more senior actors were rattled but trying to take in in stride, continuing the scene as best they could while acknowledging the absurdity of the situation. One of the actors even said to the audience, "You'll be reading about this in the paper tomorrow."
Eventually, an Alley staff member was able to get the woman to come off the stage and she was escorted out immediately. “Apparently she had a bit to drink that night”, says Rainey. “She was not allowed back.”
Callina Anderson was performing in a BYOB interactive play when one audience member became aggressively inebriated. “The woman popped up from her chair, and declared to the entire audience that she could no longer watch the play, that she was offended, and that the audience and actors should be ashamed of laughing at the content of our play”, says Anderson. “Every actor froze. Some of our faces dropped in horror. I tried to stay in character but all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and hide. None of us knew what to do.”
It was another audience member that saved the day says Anderson. "This other woman shouts out, is this a part of the show? We all shook our heads. She looked over to the first woman and replied, "Bye Felicia!" and she and her group booed the audience member out of the theater.
But what about when the issue with alcohol takes place not in the audience, but as part of the play itself? Turns out that drinking on set isn’t as much fun as it seems.
Michelle Magallon had a scene requiring her to down a freshly opened bottle of champagne. “All during the rehearsals, we rehearsed with water in a bottle, and had originally planned on not having alcohol on the stage at all,” says Magallon. The problem was that they were missing that distinctive champagne cork popping sound. “It wasn’t until the night before opening night we realized we actually needed a real champagne bottle to create the sound effect, especially in such an up-close-and-personal type of space.
One thing they didn’t discuss was the side effects of chugging a whole bottle of champers live on set. Magallon says she did think about the possibility of it completely bubbling up inside her and having to wait for it to settle. But what she did not plan for was what it did to her face.
“The moment arrives, and I throw the bottle back as if it was a shot, and it basically explodes, says Magallon. “Champagne went up and out of my nose, out of my mouth and onto the floor.” The Director liked the humorous effect so much he asked Magallon if she could make that happen every night. “From that moment on, it became a daily occurrence for the run of the show. I swear my sinuses are still lined with champagne.”
While learning all those lines, remembering a plethora of cues and making it seem fresh night after night could make one believe actors have some kind of superhuman powers, we all know they’re just disciplined, talented humans, doing their jobs. Humans that occasionally do their jobs a little less than perfect.
As John Feltch explains:
“Years ago at the Alley, we were doing one of those
"We continued doing scenes out of order for at least three more scenes all the while whispering to each other about exposition we might be missing and what the hell were we going to do about this mess. There was also a continuing tumult in the wings while the rest of the cast tried to figure out who to send on next. I was finally allowed to leave the stage whereupon I somewhat famously said to them in complete exasperation "Just stop!! Stop sending people on!!" Anyway, we got back on track somehow and friends in the audience that night swore they noticed nothing wrong. Except of course we had lost years off our lives in the interim.”
Other times it’s the set/props that conspire to throw an actor off his or her game.
Joel Sandel was performing on set with three large, very impressive columns, which were actually hollow cardboard tubes, beautifully painted to look like real marble. In one scene, Sandel was to enter stealthily, and hearing another person coming, back up to one of the columns in an attempt not to be seen. Which would have been fine if not for the one night he backed up a little too vigorously and dislodged the column from its base.
“I literally fell on my ass as the column gave way,” says Sandel. “Sitting there, momentarily stunned by the set failure, the absurdity of the situation hit me and I completely started laughing.” He managed to compose himself, settle down the roaring audience and right the column by kicking it into place, but the fun wasn’t over yet.
“In the final scene of that same performance, I had to pull a gun on someone but, for some reason, the chamber of the revolver fell open, as I raised it, and it came completely free of the gun and fell to the floor. It literally looked like the gun self-destructed. Once again the audience was roaring! I was standing right by a gentleman, who was sitting in the front row, and I put my hand on his shoulder and said: “You know, this just hasn’t been my night!”.
Missing cues and dealing with misbehaving props are just part of the I-screw-up potential of being human on stage. Another is the physical well-being of the actors themselves.
Giving your emotional and physical all for a show for weeks on end is taxing on anybody, but for a pregnant Stephanie Wittels Wachs, it was even more challenging.
“I literally found out I was pregnant on day one of rehearsal and started the second trimester the day we closed the show. So, I was super nauseous/tired/miserable, and I had to chain smoke those gross Rose Gold stage cigarettes! I would be on stage smoking, and then have to go off stage and lie down on the ground and do some deep breathing exercises to stop the nausea”, says Wittels Wachs. “Plus it was just hilarious to me that I was a 37-year-old pregnant woman in a show where I had to make out with these two young men every night! Jeremy was all of 22 and I think Gabe was 23 or 24. The whole thing was funny.”
Getting sick mid-run is something all actors have to deal with at one point or another. Close confines breed germs aplenty. Brittny Bush, however, had to deal with a sickness of a different kind.
“I was in a show and my fellow actress took the wrong medicine. She was backstage hallucinating and talking out of her head. We had three shows back to back and by the second show she was completely non-verbal,” says Bush. “They sent her to the emergency room with a family member and I had to play her part AND my part. Luckily the show was a comedy, the bits of her part that had to stay in the show were very simple and it was far enough into the run that I pretty much knew her part.”
In situations like this, Bush says it helps to remember that the audience is seeing the show for the first time. They don't know anything is wrong. “I felt like a deer in headlights. But luckily my line load was small and her character was hysterical so physical comedy was most important. I used all of my emotions in the scene and really went nuts.”
However, when it comes to health-related misadventures on Houston stages, there’s no question that the grand-prize of them all goes to Charles Krohn.
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Krohn has just exited his scene at the Alley and was sitting alone in his dressing room doing a crossword. A fellow actor came it to see if he knew the score to the baseball game. “I told him I had no news, but, boy, this is a hard puzzle and then …blackout!”, says Krohn. “Six days later, having been in a coma, I awaken to see people standing around my bed. It’s my wife and kids. To make sure I hadn’t suffered memory loss, the nurse asks me if I recognize any of their faces. I respond, I have never seen these people in my life (my little joke). It wasn’t until later I was told that I was lying dead in the dressing room passageway.”
And what of the show? “I was told that they dismissed the audience, telling them I had been suddenly taken ill,” says Krohn. “I only know this because early in 1992, I attended an Alley Acting Company party at the home of a wealthy Board Member where a gentleman told me he was in attendance that very night. I thought for a moment he was going to ask me for his money back, which I didn't have on me.”
The happy news is that Krohn is once again treading the boards at the Alley in this season’s production of A Christmas Carol and he carries with him a humorous outlook on the whole past ordeal.
“Having “died” many times on stage and now knowing I’m alive, it’s almost comforting to know that I only “died” in my dressing room.