New York, “One Life to Live,” “Abbie Cancelled”
A few years ago, during one of the worst heat waves in New York City history, I was performing in an Off-Off-Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Savage in Limbo” in a small NoHo theater. Like many older venues of its kind, the theater depended on only one beat-up air-conditioning unit, located backstage, to cool the entire performance space. Just before opening night, someone overloaded the electrical outlet that powered the air conditioner and shorted out the circuit, rendering the A/C completely nonfunctional. With no time to fix the problem, the show had to go on. But with no way to cool down the poorly ventilated theater, the temperature on stage rose to 120 degrees or more.
I was playing the role of Tony Aronica, a character whose key wardrobe component is a pair of black leather pants. Before the show even began, I was a perspiring mess. But once I hit the stage and experienced the hot glare of the lights, the oppressive heat transformed me into a fountain of sweat, with my leather pants sticking to every inch of my lower body. I did my best to “use” the heat to inform and enhance my performance, but the sheer amount of moisture pouring off me proved to be a big distraction. The perspiration flowing down from my forehead washed stage makeup into my eyes and stung like crazy. And with my contact lenses floating around in my eyes and rendered useless, I stumbled through my blocking and had trouble seeing the other cast members. Somehow, I made it through the performance and came out the other side—desperately in need of a cold shower and about 10 pounds lighter.
Los Angeles, “Dollhouse,” “Medical Investigation”
Let me start by saying that any opportunity to perform is a blessing and a learning experience. But some days are more challenging than others.
About a month ago, I was shooting a scene for “Dollhouse.” It was a dramatic and touching scene with an actor whom I love dearly. I was really excited about it. As an actor, you go into a shooting day thinking about your character, your lines, the other actor, what kind of moments you want to have, and trying to be open and in the moment. The scene was going wonderfully, and then it was time for my partner’s close-up. The sun had moved, the lighting equipment was therefore moved, and now the sun was reflecting right into my eyes. I’ve never seen glare this bad, nor did I imagine it could be this painful. My poor scene partner is trying to be in the moment for his close-up, and instead of connecting with his fellow actor, he has to look at a squinty-faced, eye-watering mess who can barely make eye contact. I felt so horrible. I sucked it up, apologized about a million times, and did the best I could. He was very understanding, and I think it actually helped with the scene, believe it or not.
I think when the conditions of your environment are against you, all you can do is fight through it and remember to prepare yourself for the unexpected. The truth is, on the day, something will be thrown at you that you didn’t expect while you’re trying to do your best work. All you can do is simply that: your best work. Acknowledge the inconvenience, shake it off, and do your job. We have a wonderfully challenging profession, and that’s half the fun. We’re here because we love it—all of it.
New York, “The Lily’s Revenge,” “The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac”
I used to perform at the Slide, the Cock, and the Hole—downtown gay bars that were really sex clubs in disguise. Essentially, I had to compete with drunks, queens, and blowjobs. The place always smelled like poppers and poo, and the men certainly didn’t come to watch a performance that didn’t consist of a “pay-by-the-inch” member swinging to the disco beats.
What I’ve learned through the years is that the best way to handle any live performance obstacle is to acknowledge whatever threatens to steal the show away from you. If people are talking, quiet them down. If someone walks across the front of the stage to go to the bathroom, follow them into the bathroom with the microphone. If an orgy is transpiring, get yourself and your spotlight in the middle of it. The most important thing to remember is hecklers are people who want to be in the show, so do your damnedest to put them in it.
These techniques work in regular venues as well. Once, when I was performing at the Sydney Opera House, a drunken man kept interrupting the show, and the audience’s focus was scattered as a result. I took back my play by insisting the man wear my outfit on stage. Once I’d gotten my dress on him, he shut up, and I got one of the longest ovations of my career.
Use what’s in the room. Remind your audience that there’s a human on stage, and that one of the goals of theater is to have a shared experience instead of hundreds of individual ones. And don’t be afraid to ask for respect. I often say when people are talking, “I guarantee you, your conversation didn’t spend an hour in the dressing room getting ready for you.”