You know the actress Janeane Garofalo? Well, I just saw her perform in Marvin’s Room at the American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street. She played opposite Lili Taylor (one of my favorite actresses all the way back from the Mystic Pizza days-love that movie). I had mixed feelings about the play for various reasons, but one thing made me glad I went and I wanted to share.
In one scene, the two sisters, Lee (played by Garofalo) and Bessie (played by Taylor) are in the waiting room of a nursing home discussing their dying father and if they should move him there. Bessie is against it but Lee is into it. The whole time they were discussing it, there was this horrible high pitched sound in the theater that wouldn’t stop. It was really annoying and loud and super distracting. I motioned to the usher and he was already on it, trying to figure out where it was coming from. I could barely focus on the play anymore and it was obvious everyone was wondering what the sound was. The actors continued to act, speaking louder and louder to try to be heard over the mystery noise and keep people focused.
At one point, Lee began listing the reasons why the home would be great for their dad and she said, “they have everything here, it’s nice-except for that high pitched noise.”
The audience roared with laughter and started applauding. It was such a thrill to see her ‘break the fourth wall’ (cross the invisible line that separated the actors on stage and the audience) to acknowledge something that we were all experiencing in real time.
Everyone responded well to it. It felt brave and honest and so necessary. And it had the added benefit or signaling to the sound and lighting directors that it was bothersome to the actors too. They did figure it out and within a few minutes the noise stopped and didn’t return. Turned it someone’s hearing aid was causing some interference with the sound, go figure.
After the production, the audience was invited to a Q&A with the actors which was a fun surprise. I’m so glad I decided to stay. A women in the audience asked Janeane Garofalo about the noise because amazingly enough she just wasn’t sure if the comment about the noise was part of the script or not. That’s how smooth it was. I guess she thought it was a coincidence that the line and the noise happened at the same time? Who knows. Anyway, Janeane explained that she decided to do it because although it’s often considered a no-no to break the fourth wall, she believes that being real, being authentic and in the moment is the only way to be, and the way to get people to like you more. And then she made us all laugh again saying she needs people to like her more because her character is often unfairly (in her opinion) viewed as unlikable.
From working with so many singers, I know how we tend to worry so much about things going wrong on stage. But sometimes what goes wrong can be what elevates the experience. For me, the way she handled the noise made me laugh and was not only educational but the highlight of the whole show.
It reminds me of my CD release party back in 2004. I started the intro on the piano and try as I might, I could not for the life of me remember the opening verse. I played the intro again and again trying to remember until I just said into the mic, “Um, you guys know this song, does anyone remember the first line?” Everyone laughed and applauded and sure enough, someone called out the line for me. I thanked her and started the song and it was great. No big deal. I turned a stressful situation (who isn’t worried about forgetting lyrics?) into an opportunity to connect with the audience as an imperfect human who forgot the lyrics to her own song. Don’t sweat the small stuff as they say.
if you had told me beforehand that I’d forget the lyrics to a song in the show I would’ve been so terrified and upset about it. I would not have been able to imagine that it would turn out well and even bring joy and FUN to the room. All these years later, that moment is the only thing I really remember about my CD release party and it still makes me happy because I risked being real, I risked being me. Flaws and all.
What about you? What kinds of things have happened to you on stage and how did you handle them?
I’d love to hear about it!