Photo credit: Wayne Hile
One recent Sunday afternoon, the unthinkable happened: I stumbled and fell onstage in front of a large audience. I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Foolish. But I recovered by owning my mistake with a laugh instead of pretending nothing happened.
For context: on summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, on a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth came to town. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. I portray a pompous barrister and guild master Nicolas Wright, who is one of the residents guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are my stage.
One of the day’s highlights is the Queen’s Parade, which occurs shortly before 1:00 p.m. Marching in the parade is an honor that requires the cast to sing, wave, and shout praises to Queen Elizabeth as we walk through the dusty streets in a choreographed procession. I never grow tired of marching in the parade through the front gates and into the crowded streets, where the crowds lining the parade route create an electric feeling with their own cheering and shouting.
On July 16, I was marching alongside my fellow cast mates on Guild Hall Row, a narrow stretch of road flanked by shops and trees. I was prancing and preening as Nicolas Wright always does when I came upon a makeshift hopscotch court formed by flowers in the middle of the parade route. The egotistical Nicolas Wright just had to jump through the hopscotch court, with an exaggerated twist and twirl of his large green-and-black surcoat. Somehow while leaping around on one foot, I caught my foot in my billowy trousers and lost my balance. One moment I was soaring in the air, and the next moment I found myself on the ground, a tangled mass of surcoat, dirt-covered pants and shirt, and stunned ego.
As I landed with an audible thud amid cast mates and patrons, I could hear some gasps. It felt like every eye in Bristol was watching. I prayed that none of the news photographers or camera crews from visiting news media saw what happened. I was too embarrassed to look anyone in the eye. What a screw-up!
A cast mate approached me to help me get up. At that point, the training I receive as a Bristol actor kicked in. Instead of accepting his help, I waved him off with a loud laugh. I got up on my own power, twirled, and shouted, “Wasn’t that grand? Just as I had planned all along!” Then I bowed as if I had just delivered a Shakespearean soliloquy, shouted “God save the Queen!” and raced ahead to hand out trinkets to parade goers.
Inside, I was still reeling from the fall, but forcing myself to laugh and embrace the gaffe kept my stress from showing – and also helped me work my way out of my temporary funk.
As a performer and public speaker, I know from experience that usually the best way to deal with a mistake onstage is to simply move on as if nothing happened. If you forget a line or stumble over a word, you don’t want to call attention to the miscue. In fact, oftentimes, an audience won’t even notice a mistake (even if you do). Pausing to acknowledge and correct yourself can disrupt the momentum of a performance or presentation.
But as I have been taught at Bristol, there are times when the best way to handle a mistake is to take the opposite approach and absolutely own the gaffe — which is especially appropriate when the nature of your performance is supposed to be improvisational and comedic, as is the case with Bristol. Turning an accident into a performance is ideal when the disruption is just too obvious to overlook. Improvising with a screw-up creates unexpected theater. Doing so can also create a bond with your audience so long as you act with grace and humor.
Creating comedy out of my fall also conveyed in just seconds that I had not hurt myself and was as happy and outgoing as ever, which defused any potential tension that might have resulted from the incident.
However you handle a mistake onstage, the worst response is to show stress. As the saying goes, never let them see you sweat. The audience takes their cues from you. When you express annoyance, you send a negative vibe that can kill a performance. There will be time to express your angst backstage later. But if you laugh off your problem, you may make the negativity melt away, anyway, which is what happened to me.
As Keith Richards was quoted in Victor Bockris’ Keith Richards: The Biography, “There are musicians who make faces when they miss a note. I am glad when it happens, and I think, ‘Hang on, that may be the birth of a new song.’ Analyze your mistakes, learn from your mistakes.”
By the time the parade was over, I was feeling as energetic and confident as I had when the gates of Bristol opened. Laughing in the aftermath of the fall helped me recover my mojo even though I was not laughing on the inside at that moment. I faked it untiI made it. Afterward, I thought about what had happened and asked what I might do differently next time I want to perform a physical stunt. I realized I need to become more accustomed to moving in my billowy trousers, which are a new pair I’ve not worn in past seasons. I need to practice leaping and running until I’m used to how the trousers fit when I move. But sometimes, there is nothing to do differently.
Finally, the training I receive as an actor at Bristol made all the difference. The cast and our directors discuss these scenarios all the time in rehearsals, never knowing when we might apply what we learn. On a warm Sunday afternoon, my opportunity came along.
How do you handle mistakes when everyone sees them?
Here are more posts about my Bristol acting experiences:
“Spin Creative Gold with ‘Yes, And . . .’” January 17, 2017
“A Place of Magic,” August 12, 2016.
“Your Audience Is Always Watching,” July 28, 2016.
“Own the Stage,” September 3, 2015.
“Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” August 26, 2015.
“Fake It Until You Make It,” July 17, 2015.
“How Acting in a Renaissance Faire Has Made Me a Better Executive,” August 18, 2014.