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Can’t Stop the Train

There’s a massive sense of inevitability in the middle of a performance for an audience. No matter what you do, you can’t really keep the scene from moving forward, even if you have a very good reason for it. Though I suppose it’s technically feasible to do so, it’s as if we’re driven by magic onstage to keep things going no matter the obstacle. You can no more change the flow of a well-rehearsed show than you can change the flow of a river – doing so requires a near-Herculean effort.

Today was fourth and final preview for my current project, a costarring role in an original play called “September Skies”. (We officially open next Thursday.) Most of the play takes place in an airport, so my character’s props include a rolling suitcase. Today, for whatever reason, the suitcase’s telescoping handle malfunctioned and caught on my finger, pinching it. I felt the pain immediately but moved on unflinching as the scene required.

It wasn’t until several minutes later, while standing across the stage with one hand on the handle, that I realized that not only was my finger throbbing, but my hand was wet. A furtive glance down revealed the culprit: my fingertip had been cut open and was bleeding freely. My entire palm was covered in blood, as was the suitcase handle.

I resisted the immediate urge to react to the situation. There was no way to deal with it immediately without stopping the entire show; one of the problems with a script that requires you to be onstage nearly the entire time. What could I possibly have done? No towels, no band-aids, no sinks onstage. No excuse in the script to make reference to an injury. And if I can go on, I owe it to the cast and crew to go on like a professional. So I took a breath and continued.

I lost some of my mental focus as I diverted more energy to controlling what I did or did not do with that hand. For example, I was lucky that I had picked up my prop Starbucks cup – white – with my left hand. I made a mental note to write off my right hand as nonfunctional until such time as I could get it to stop bleeding, and for the rest of the scene clutched my black purse with my right hand as much as possible to prevent me from accidentally touching my costume. At my first opportunity to leave stage – a 120 second period when my costar is delivering a voicemail monologue – I rushed into hiding and applied pressure to the finger to stop the bleeding. There were no materials at hand to clean up with, though, so I had to come back into the scene still favoring the left hand.

FINALLY, the scene was over, and I managed to hit all of my lines (though my energy level probably could have been better.) It’s a testament to my stage brain that I was able to continue uninterrupted while my stage brain handled the logistics of protecting the bleeding hand. Once backstage, I had to find a band-aid… still very little time for cleanup (90 seconds) but at least a bandage would prevent the problem from worsening. This process meant I didn’t have time to secure my hair for the next scene, though, so then I had to deal with my hair falling in my face for the first half of the scene. Argh. During my next 180 seconds offstage I finally had enough time to get to a sink and finish the cleanup.

In my head, I was worried that the audience would have noticed the bleeding and it would have distracted them. But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I asked my costar during one of our scene transitions if he noticed me bleeding all over my props, and he was stunned – he had no idea. Which isn’t entirely surprising; we are in character and not staring at each others’ hands. Post-show, I checked with the other actor, our director, and our stage manager – and shockingly NONE of them knew that I was bleeding in Scene 1 until I told them. I am apparently such an actress that I managed to hide my reaction to (and the reality of) my blood-covered right hand.

I’m actually taking this as a good omen. I’ve had several shows where bleeding or other minor injury happened onstage (sometimes to me, sometimes others) during a preview or dress rehearsal, and it always meant a great run, as if it were some sacrifice to the theatrical gods or the ghost of the Scottish Play or something. And on top of that, I’m feeling rather proud of my ability to act through such a challenge without derailing the show. The wound was more painful than it should have been, but I didn’t let that get in the way of our flow.

Acting forces you to learn to roll with the punches – when you have no choice, it’s amazing what you can find yourself capable of accomplishing. Plays don’t come with emergency stop cords, so you’ll just have to ride the train wherever it takes you.

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