Have I ever told you about one of my proudest moments onstage? No? Gather round, children, and let me set the scene. It's July 26th, 2014. Tut'Zanni Theatre Company is finishing up a thrilling couple weeks of performances of Love Letter Lost at Capital Fringe Festival in my hometown of Washington, DC. I'm exhausted but relishing hamming it up in my dual roles of Fabrizio, one of the spoiled lovers, and Capitano, the attention seeking braggart who's always a half-step behind his competition. ALi, playing a sneakily-silent Pulcinella and I have just started the strip poker scene (don't ask) and Capitano is down to his strategically-placed red scarf and little else. I'm just about to up the ante when there's a thud from the second row of the audience - someone's cellphone has fallen onto the floor, and it was loud enough for everyone in the small theatre to hear.
In a "normal" show, there's a fourth wall. There are pre-written lines. There's the assumption that the audience and actors will collectively grit their teeth through the awkward interruption and really lean into the suspension of disbelief - unplanned noise? What unplanned noise? But this ain't your normal show - this is Commedia.
In that moment, as Capitano, I can't NOT deal with the fact that I was just RUDELY interrupted. Without skipping a beat, I exclaim "Excuse me!" as I glare toward the slightly embarrassed-looking audience member. It gets a pretty big laugh! She sheepishly smiles and picks up her phone. ALi, as Pulcinella, immediately plays along, putting down her hand of cards and looking disapprovingly at the noisemaker as well. I tell the audience member to collect herself and facetiously ask for her permission to proceed with the show, and she nods that she's ready.
As I start my line again I immediately stumble over it, so of course I place the blame squarely on the noisemaker in the audience throwing me off. Again, the audience is tickled by Capitano's diva tendencies. I make like I'm resetting the entire scene in fast motion to get things on the right track, and we're finally back up and running.
What felt so fun and so true to the spirit of Commedia in that brief moment is that rather than ignoring the distraction and letting the audience cringe as I try to pretend like nothing's happened at all, I turned my full attention to what was happening, and through the lens of Capitano, let everyone know how I felt about being upstaged. Feeling free to respond in real time to what was happening in the audience kept me fully engaged and present in the moment, and hopefully reminded the audience that they're not watching a movie - that everyone in the room has the power to affect the events of the show.
Want to see it for yourself? Here's the clip of the moment I'm describing:
As we prepare to put a bunch of new work on its feet in our upcoming show development period, one of my main goals is to feel secure enough in the characters I'm playing to roll with the punches, to be thrown off course and revel in every unexpected moment. To me, watching how an actor reacts to a complete surprise is as theatre as theatre gets.