Cautionary Lessons Learned by Houston Actors About Fueling Up Before a Show

Chelsea Ryan McCurdy in Godspell at A.D. Players
Chelsea Ryan McCurdy in Godspell at A.D. Players Photo by Pin Lim
Chelsea Ryan McCurdy (most recently seen in Godspell at A.D. Players), has learned the hard way that for her, it’s better not to eat before performing in a show unless it’s an emergency.

“I came to this conclusion after the third month of a nine-month run where I made the choice to snag some grocery store sushi as my meal of choice,” says McCurdy. “The entire show I was belching salmon until eventually, I felt like it was coming out of my pores! I reeked of salmon, it was like I went bad!”

Since that time McCurdy has avoided meals just prior to show time and instead opts for a late night outing to satiate her hunger. A reward for a show completed, she says.

While most audience members only grapple with what and when to eat before a show every once in a while, performers have the tricky task of figuring out how to properly fuel pre-curtain night after night. So how do they do it? Are there tricks? Mistakes to learn from as McCurdy did? Rituals that work?

We asked Houston performers to share their tales of chowing down before getting into character. And while everyone seems to have a different process, they’ve all been part of, or seen, what happens when things go wrong. Hint – burping and the like seems to be a recurrent theme.

Luis Galindo in Alma en Venta
Photo courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre
Luis Galindo (most recently seen in Lilies of the Field at A.D. Players and Alma en Venta at Stages Repertory Theatre)

When I was doing The Winter’s Tale at the then Stark Naked Theatre, I was working with my now wife, Courtney Lomelo, for the very first time and when it came to show day our menu choices differed greatly. By that I mean we were polar opposites in our choices about fuel for the show. Courtney had a veggie burrito from Freebird's up the street, I mean it was the size of a baby’s head. She ate the whole damned thing. I was shocked that she could do this. I think I had a chia bar or a cliff bar and a coffee or something equally dainty, and I was baffled that she could perform at top-notch ability with a burrito the size of a cocker spaniel in her belly.

I asked Courtney how she was able to do that? and she replied," I need the fuel!" She showed me the way. Now, I am able to eat damn near anything before a show, I can eat tacos, pasta, sandwiches, salads and such as long as they fit into our vegan diet. I think the trick is using high plant protein and grains to fuel the body. I cannot imagine eating dairy, high sugar and meat before a show anyway. I would be in a coma.

As an actor, you have to be high energy and on for hours so I find that eating the right things for my body to be able to have a slow burn instead of a quick peak and crash is the most important way to take care of myself before a performance. When I was doing The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety at Stages and wearing nothing but wrestling gear and being body slammed and highly active, I preferred to eat very light and earlier in the day. Courtney had me on a very strict diet of fresh vegetable juices and salads. So all that being said, I think it does depend on the physicality involved in the character and what is required. If I don't have to do too much, I am more likely to not restrict myself too much.
Tamarie Cooper in Tamarie's Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets - PHOTO BY PIN LIM
Tamarie Cooper in Tamarie's Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets
Photo by Pin Lim
Tamarie Cooper (most recently seen in Small Ball, Leap and the Net Will Appear and Rhinoceros all at Catastrophic Theatre)

I have made the mistake many times of eating too close to curtain. There is nothing like having a very intense quiet moment on stage accompanied by stomach gurgling and (probably TMI here but it’s me) flatulence. Inner monologue: “please, please let it be silent.”

I also drank a giant coffee and took two Claritin by mistake before a recent Small Ball performance. Early in act 1, I realized I had to barf. However, my character was seated in the audience and unable to leave as the play would come to a grinding halt. I managed to hold off until my first five-minute break in dialogue toward the end of the act. I turned to Jeff Miller, whispered I was leaving to throw up, switched off my mic and ran out of the theater. I think it was scarier for Jeff since he didn’t know if I would come back! I returned for my next cue, had a Sprite and some Pepto at intermission and all was well.

click to enlarge Lindsay Ehrhardt in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley - PHOTO BY BLUEPRINT FILM CO.
Lindsay Ehrhardt in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Photo by Blueprint Film Co.
Lindsay Ehrhardt (most recently seen in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at Main Street Theater and The Government Inspector at Classical Theatre)

I often snack at least once, during intermission or a longer stretch offstage. Trail mix or a protein bar or some crackers. If there’s candy or snacks in the green room I’m always on top of those.
Biggest lesson learned is if I’m wearing a corset, EAT EARLY. Even if I’m having something light, putting on a corset immediately after eating is a terrible idea.

I made the mistake of going to an Easter brunch before a dress rehearsal once. I thought I’d paced myself and given myself plenty of time to digest but I was to the theater, put on the corset, and was like, WELL I GUESS THIS IS WHAT DYING FEELS LIKE. So now I always make sure I have ample time to digest.
click to enlarge Mai Le, center, in Men on Boats at Main Street Theater - PHOTO BY PIN LIM
Mai Le, center, in Men on Boats at Main Street Theater
Photo by Pin Lim

Mai Le (most recently seen in Men on Boats at Main Street Theater)

I am a girl who loves to eat. So, when I'm in a show, I'll bring my lunch and dinner packed up in a bag with me when I head out for work in the morning. I usually can't squeeze in a quick trip home before rehearsal or a performance, and grabbing to-go every day eventually adds up to a bill that will bring me to tears.

So I meal prep. A lot. I'll usually block out a good chunk of my Sunday to prepare food for the week, or I'll triple dinner portions and bring them as leftovers for the following days.

What keeps me feeling full and satisfied, but still light enough to run around and stay focused, is (quite simply) a very balanced diet. Every meal is comprised of three things: a protein, a carb, and a vegetable. And I'm always carrying fat-rich snacks.

If I eat too much or less of one portion, I'm either stuck feeling slow (too many carbs), sleepy (too much protein), or unsatiated (not enough carbs/protein/fat).

I also try to avoid fried foods, of any kind. As much I love them, they weigh me down a lot. I also avoid carbonated drinks. It is not fun being with, or watching, an actor burp out fried onion specks.
click to enlarge Dylan Godwin in Picasso at the Lapin Agile - PHOTO BY LYNN LANE
Dylan Godwin in Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Photo by Lynn Lane
Dylan Godwin (most recently seen in Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Alley Theatre, Unlock'd at Queensbury Theatre)

I am a total creature of habit and derive calmness through ritual. As with any venture onstage planning and preparedness is key! I usually try and hydrate all day prior to a show especially if it is sweaty one, the only trick is that you have to find the exact window to stop before the show starts, if you get what I am implying!

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to do a show with three of my best friends, it was one of those nonstop musical reviews. As in, when we walked onstage we didn’t walk off until the act break. About midway through the third number, I looked into my scene partners eyes and could see them change from ‘white ease’ to ‘YELLOW panic’. It was clear that he had missed his “hydration window” and wasn’t going to make it to intermission.

The theatre where we worked had a small door that led to an outdoor courtyard. We rushed offstage for a 23-second quick change and he disappeared to “water the flowers”. The door leading outside locked from the inside and after an appropriate amount of panic on his part I opened the door and we rushed back onstage. He has since forgiven me. The moral of the story, stay hydrated, but not saturated.

Rachael Logue with John Gremillion in Touch(ed) - PHOTO BY CLAIRE LOGUE
Rachael Logue with John Gremillion in Touch(ed)
Photo by Claire Logue
Rachael Logue (most recently seen in Daisy at Main Street Theater and Touch(ed) at Rogue Productions)

This subject has always been something I’ve struggled with. Some people I know are really good about bringing food for themselves to the theatre and storing in the fridge, if there happens to be one. I can occasionally accomplish this, but when I don’t - I will usually try to stock up on Quest bars that I leave in my car when I’m in a show.

During the first Wonderettes at Stages in 2010, my costume was so tight, I couldn’t eat anything too substantial anywhere close to show time or my dress was not going to fit. I drank a lot of smoothies that summer.

Two years ago, when I was doing The Marvelous Wonderettes again at Geva Theatre, I had a similar issue. One night, I grabbed dinner with some out of town friends between the matinee and evening show. The service at the sushi restaurant took longer than expected and I ended up having to scarf a spicy tuna roll a bit too fast. Fast forward to Act 1 where I was just praying my zipper was strong enough in my 50’s style prom dress while I had to sing and jump around. It was one of the most physically uncomfortable 50 minutes of my life. I’m pretty sure I was back phrasing some songs and changing a few rhythms so I could squeeze out some burps I was praying would be silent and unnoticeable.

click to enlarge Actor Jeff Miller ordering the same pre show meal he's had since the 1980s - PHOTO BY JEFF MILLER
Actor Jeff Miller ordering the same pre show meal he's had since the 1980s
Photo by Jeff Miller
Jeff Miller (most recently seen in Small Ball at Catastrophic Theatre and Feathers and Teeth at Mildred’s Umbrella)

It’s always a Subway sandwich for me. Sometimes turkey sometimes it’s the club or cold cut, but always six-inch on Italian and always with the same toppings of lettuce, tomato, black olive, light mayo with salt and pepper. This is before every show and actually the majority of rehearsals.

I can’t remember when I started doing this but it was a long time ago. I try to eat it at exactly 1.5 hours before curtain but never more than two hours before or less than one. Also, I rarely eat it inside the venue it has to be in my car where I have just finished my vocal warm-up which will be singing along with selected tracks from Elton John’s magnificent album “Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra”. I have done this since that album came out which I think was the late 80’s.

The price for not doing this can be steep. Once I opted for a PotBelly sandwich and I was terrible the whole show because my stomach didn’t feel right and all I could think about was “WHY DID YOU NOT GO TO SUBWAY?!” so I won’t mess with that again.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman