Audiences arrive at Independent Shakespeare Company's summer shows in much the same way they might arrive at the beach. Flip-flops abound, picnic baskets dot the barely delineated aisles, and children order up frozen treats from a roaming ice cream vendor.
Before the shows, there's plenty of time to wander the lawn that doubles as a seating area, and to explore the empty animal enclosures that Griffith Park's Old Zoo critters formerly called home. It's summertime, the living is easy, and major line blunders from principal actors are not only forgiven but applauded.
Yup, that's right. The night I saw The Winter's Tale, something happened that I have never seen happen in live theater: An actor called out, “line.”
Compounding the messy moment, the actor's plea for textual assistance went unheard by the backstage crew, so he scurried off, leaving three other actors stranded while he pulled his tongue-tied shit together.
The actor was David Melville, who until his moment of extreme paralysis on the Saturday night of opening weekend was doing a bang-up job of bringing copious amounts of comic energy to the role of King Leontes, a terribly unsympathetic character who acts like a man-child at best, a shortsighted lunatic at worst. Melville seemed to be totally inhabiting the prattling character's skin as he raved on and on about the imagined sins of his entirely innocent wife.
But then he froze and summer turned to winter for me when I realized he was not going to wing it and move forward. He was gone from the stage for about one minute, during which time the audience remained mostly silent, save a few titters and whispers. When he arrived back onstage, however, applause and cheers broke out.
I was initially dumbfounded by the gaffe, and still am a bit. But Melville bounced back and his performance never wavered thereafter, so in my review I gave the show a “Go.” I guess even nitpicking critics can be enchanted if the season's right.
We emailed Melville to ask him to explain what happened. Here are excerpts from our interview:
How long before you called “line” did you feel lost/disoriented/panicked/other? How would you best describe the feelings you had in that moment?
Not sure how long it was. I blacked out a bit and when I came 'round I was standing onstage looking at Tom. I knew I had to get back on with the play, but I had no idea what was next. I wasn't particularly panicked, just a bit chagrined that it had come off the rails when it had been going so well. I think I said, “Oh no, I lost it.” Or maybe even, “Shit, I lost it” — not very Shakespearean! Which was pretty much what happened.
When a part is going well it feels a bit like being possessed, or rather inhabited by someone else. More and more that is how it feels to me. It can be a bit alarming, but once you learn to trust it and go with it, [it] is an amazing experience — it's like someone else is doing all the work. That night was the first night that I really felt Leontes coming alive and then I tripped on a line, the illusion was gone, and it all vanished. Not just the line but the character, everything, and I was just David standing onstage with egg on face.
Had you had any trouble with that scene/moment in rehearsals?
It's a difficult line, but then so are most of Leontes' lines! There are lots of irregular lines, enjambed lines, crazy verse structure — it is very challenging. When I was at drama school we had to pick a Shakespeare part and make a one-man show about him/her. Leontes was the only part that was off-limits: too difficult. It is a hard part and I have not had a happy rehearsal period, as I've been required to do a lot more on the production side this year than others. It must have been frustrating for the director, dealing with an actor who has to stop rehearsal to figure out how the actors' bathroom holding tanks are going to get pumped etc., etc. Literally dealing with people's shit!
No, that night was the result of a touch of heatstroke and a dash of fatigue due to several months working flat out on the festival with no days off (and not enough time concentrating on my part).
Do you feel like your fellow actors onstage should have given you a cue, or that you could have improvised for a moment and gotten back on track? Or were you just totally blanking?
Oh God no! Leontes does all the talking in those scenes. It would have been hard for anyone to dig me out. I prefer owning up to the truth of these situations. Two years ago we opened Much Ado [About Nothing] in a similar state. It was going nicely, but I got to the end of one of Benedick's speeches and hadn't a clue what to say next. I knew Beatrice was supposed to come on, but I couldn't remember her cue, so I said, “Beatrice, love. It's no use, you'll have to come on, I can't remember my line!” The audience laughed, Beatrice came on and we got on with it.
When you left the stage, what happened behind the scenes? Did someone show you the text? You came back fairly quickly and never faltered after that moment…
The company are used to me being a bit unpredictable, so when they heard the audience cheer and saw me come off, they just thought I was trying something new. I started to explain that all was not well, but by then I had regained my presence of mind so I got back onstage and got on with it.
The crowd was really supportive and perhaps even a bit thrilled at your ability to come back strong — do you think that's owing to the spirit of summer (free, outdoor) theater? Do you think the reaction would have been different in a different setting?
Yes, we have a lovely audience and they are really supportive. At ISC we try not to pretend to be what we are not. We are always conscious that we are actors creating an illusion and that illusion only works if the audience willingly participates. With our budget and our circumstances, there will always be rough edges, but we invite the audience to piece out those imperfections with their minds.
So we don't pretend we have a million dollars when we don't and we don't pretend we are going to be perfect, but we will always try to be entertaining. We give ourselves permission to fail, and in doing so I think we give ourselves the freedom to go a bit further — sometimes we come unstuck, but the audience is always there with us and we love them. There is a lot of love generated at that park.
Is there anything else you want to add?
People come to me for acting lessons. In all honesty they should save their money — I have no idea what I'm doing.
One of the few useful things I do have to impart is this. It starts with this anecdote from Terrence Stamp's autobiography. While at drama school he was on the Underground and spotted a famous old theater actor and asked him what made him a great actor. The actor replied, “I learn the wordies.” Losing your lines during a show is every actor's nightmare — the worst thing that can happen, and something of which most actors live in fear and something that holds many actors back.
I was always terrified of drying onstage and then one night it happened — during Henry V's “Once more unto the breach” speech. The result for me was a total release — it was the worst thing that could happen and it really wasn't that bad. After that I stopped worrying about remembering my lines and started acting.
Now I learn the wordies as best I can and then stop worrying — the result is I no longer recite but can act… and sometimes I do forget the wordies, not often but sometimes. Saturday night was quite horrible and will go alongside my Benedick and Henry V war stories, but it doesn't really bother me. I believe that stuff makes me a better actor at the end of the day. More fearless.