Canada's theatre actors could learn a thing or two from Canadian musicians about how to be truly present on stage – and what to do when something doesn't go exactly according to plan.
This is what I was left thinking after the opening night of True Crime – the new show at Crow's Theatre written and performed by Torquil Campbell, long-time frontman of the indie-pop band Stars, who definitely knows how to connect with a crowd.
Lately, it seems like every week, I am witness to an on-stage incident that points to a kind of crisis of liveness among our stage actors.
At the opening of Little Pretty and The Exceptional at Factory Theatre, for instance, part of an actor's wig fell off on in a climactic moment – and the whole ensemble left it to sit there like a dead animal until the play ended.
A couple weeks before, at Butcher at the Panasonic Theatre, an actor's head mic popped off of his ear – and he left it dangling from a wire under his chin like a necklace for a long time while he made it through one of his character's more emotional scenes.
When something unexpected happens on stage, too many performers' instincts seem to be to completely ignore it – even though that's way more distracting than picking up a fallen prop or putting a microphone back into place.
Of course, it helps if you can react to surprises in a cool manner. That was not the case at the media performance of Liv Stein at Canadian Stage in January, when Stratford veteran Geraint Wyn Davies was trying to open some wine on stage and the cork broke in the neck of the bottle.
Instead of either working this minor mishap into the scene, or acknowledging it with a meta-theatrical wink to the audience, you could simply see panic fill Davies's eyes as he tried to figure out what to do.
Eventually, he decided to mime pouring the wine into glasses – and his scene partner Leslie Hope went along with it, the two of them sipping air for the next few minutes. But Davies couldn't move on from what had happened for some reason and, soon enough, went back to the bottle and finally got that darn cork out and filled their glasses with real red liquid.
This was definitely one of those moments that theatregoers crave – when it feels like we're witnessing something rather than simply watching – but I'm sure Davies wished he had come up with a more elegant solution.
Theatre audiences aren't idiots. I've long hated the expression "suspension of disbelief," because it implies that going to the theatre involves turning a part of your brain off – the part connected to critical thinking.
In fact, theatre-going involves a turning on a part of your brain that we don't always get to use in our day-to-day life: our imagination.
We can roll with it when something goes awry, even enjoy it – we know we're watching actors on a stage telling a story even as we let ourselves believe in and feel for the characters that they're playing.
When actors try to pretend like we didn't all just see something unusual happen, they're treating us like children or easily distracted pets – as if them ignoring the obvious means that we won't notice that box of cookies or the squirrel that just ran across the park.
I didn't note any of these minor mishaps in my reviews of these shows because, truth be told, they didn't affect the performances all that much.
But I was recently reminded, at True Crime, how much the opposite – performers reacting in the moment, being truly present – can enliven a play.
Before the play had even properly begun, musician Julian Brown – a veteran performer who has played with Feist, Apostle of Hustle and Matthew Barber – stepped on stage to set up his guitar and a hush fell over the audience. "You can keep talking," he said, naturally, with a smile – and I was shocked by how long it had been since I'd seen someone on a stage actually make a direct connection with an audience so simply.
Campbell was equally good at just being in the room once he took his place on the stage for his play about the imposter Christian Gerhartsreiter. Interestingly enough, he had a script on stage with him on a music stand the whole time to consult as needed – and, when he forgot to put on a Swedish accent for one of his characters, he noted it and simply went back a couple of lines.
This acknowledgment of the possibility of momentary imperfections and actual mistakes didn't make Campbell's performance disappointing – instead, it made it feel alive, on the edge, and, perhaps paradoxically, allowed him to weave a spell around us more tightly.
Maybe this just comes naturally to musicians. Their songs tell us stories, move us to tears, make us laugh or think about something in a new way – but they never pretend they're doing anything other than putting on a concert.
I'm not saying there aren't actors out there who are fully alive on stage and able to respond to the unexpected. There are plenty. During the opening night performance of Sousatzka, Victoria Clark – a multiple Tony Award nominee – casually picked up an object that had rolled off the piano on stage without breaking character. It wasn't a terribly remarkable moment, but was part of her fully being present in the world on stage.
The fact is that audiences are always aware and eager for those slices of real liveness – something to remind us why we put on our coat and shoes and went out into the world rather than staying home to watch television.
So why pretend, when they're happening, that they're not?