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The Actorís Guide to Backstage Etiquette

By Chris Polo
Community Theater Green Room

trans1.GIF - 49 Bytes Imagine this: youíve rehearsed for weeks, and are ready to present your theatrical masterpiece to an adoring public that is sure to shower you with accolades. You and your fellow actors have your lines down pat; your laugh lines will bring down the house, and your dramatic scenes will earn you a ten-hanky rating. The cast is working like a well-oiled machine: not a line dropped, not a move out of place, and trust and camaraderie flow like water. Thereís just one little hitch.

You have no crew. Nobodyís running lights, so youíre doomed to deliver your lines in the dark. Thereís no props mistress to make sure the cups and saucers are set, and nothing to pour into them even if there were. No one to help you backstage with that quick change between the first two scenes. No stage manager to make sure you make your entrance on time. No set, because no one designed and built it. No one to pull the curtain.

Actors (particularly those who donít take their turn backstage) often make the mistake of thinking that the show is all about them, and that the crew is somehow playing a lesser role and, by extension, deserve less respect for their effort. As the above scenario illustrates, nothing could be farther from the truth. Putting on a show is a team effort; while the actors have the showier part, the fact of the matter is that without a crew, theyíve got no show. Treating your crew members well, listening to what they need from you and doing as they ask can very well make the difference between a good show and a great show. Following are a few tips to help you make their jobs easier.

Do whatever the crew tells you without arguing, especially in performance.

When a crew member tells you to do something, itís for one reason: the good of the show. If you have a problem with what youíre told to do, do it anyway and complain later.

Why itís important: Sometimes the reasons for the requests arenít obvious. If crew tells you they need to call you eight pages before your cue, it may be because theyíre all so busy with some other crucial backstage moment during the time leading up to your entrance that no one is free to call you any later than that. Itís either come up 8 pages early or donít get cued. If they ask you to keep a prop with your costume and be responsible for it, it may be because they have no room for it or because theyíre busy when you make you entrance. One of my favorite personal stories (which we recounted in the early days of our web site) illustrating the "you just never know" principle occurred during a production of Rumors, when the stage manager told the actress playing Cookie, who had just donned an apron in preparation for an entrance, "Hold very still and donít look down." Being a well-trained actress, she did as she was told. The stage manager did something which the actress couldnít see and then told her to make her entrance. It wasnít until intermission that the actress discovered that her apron, which had been hanging on a hook on the wall, had become the roost of a small bat. It was clinging to the front of the apron when the actress put it on, and the stage manager had taken a towel, plucked the bat from the front of the apron, and then quickly run off and disposed of it outside. Never question what the crew tells you to do in performance; just trust that itís for your own good and all will be well.

Donít hang out in the wings watching the show.

If your theater doesnít have a monitor or loudspeaker in the green room, you may feel totally in the dark about how the performance is going. Itís very tempting to creep backstage and keep tabs on things from the wings. Resist the temptation.

Why itís important: Backstage space in most theaters is pretty cramped, and the last thing the crew needs is to have to work around an extra body. Things can happen pretty quickly backstage, and you could find yourself causing a disaster by blocking someoneís view when a visual cue is needed, or being in the way during a quick entrance or exit. Stay in the green room and out of the way.

Donít talk with anyone backstage unless it is essential to the show

Youíve got an early cue with a lot of time to hang out in the wings before your entrance, and it looks like the gal manning stage left isnít doing anything, so why not strike up a little conversation about how the showís going while you wait? Resist the urge. Youíll have plenty of time to talk at the cast party.

Why itís important: A whispered conversation going on in the wings can be very annoying to the actors on stage, and in some small theaters can even be heard in the house. Not only that, but a lot of what the crew is doing is waiting for a cue, just like you. If you distract them with conversation, they may miss a cue, just as you would if someone were trying to hold a conversation with you while you were trying to act on stage. If you have something that you must communicate to a crew member because it affects your performance or the show, then do so, but make sure youíre not interrupting something else that may be going on. If your crew uses headsets, always make the assumption that theyíre listening to something when you approach them and you wonít go wrong.

Stay put until youíre called for your cue.

It can be nerve-wracking to hang out in the green room until youíre called, so you pace. You might be back in the storage area, or in the dressing room, or having a quick smoke outside the backstage entrance. Whatever the case, youíre never in the same place two nights running. Donít do it. Find some place where youíre comfortable spending time until youíre called, and then stick to that spot for the run of the show.

Why itís important: The crew canít call you if they canít find you. And while you may know perfectly well where you are, they donít. If the actors on stage skip ten pages, youíre going to be needed on stage sooner than you thought, so donít count on going somewhere and making sure youíre back "in time for your cue." If you need to be someplace away from others so you can run lines, make sure the crew knows that and be there when they come to get you. If you must use the restroom, tell someone else in the green room who will be there until you get back. This rule also applies to arriving in the wings before youíre cued. I canít count the number of times Iíve seen crew frantically trying to track down a missing actor who is subsequently found nonchalantly waiting in the wings on the opposite side of the stage. This is one habit that can backfire on you, because the one time you decide to wait until youíre cued, the crew figures youíre already in place and doesnít bother to call you.

Donít play with or move the props, and donít sit on the furniture backstage.

What harm can come from picking up the starter pistol thatís being used as the murder weapon and twirling it around your finger like Jesse James, or from shoving a prop to one side so you can perch on the end of the prop table, or from sitting in that comfy armchair that wonít be used until Act II? Plenty. The rule is "donít touch."

Why itís important: Props should only be handled in the context of the performance Ė youíd be surprised how easy it can be to break or damage a prop that looked sturdy enough when you picked it up. Never move a prop -- stage managers and prop masters have specific spots for certain props, making it easier to find things in dim backstage lighting. It may not look like a big deal to just shove that coal scuttle under the props table so it wonít be in anyoneís way, but when the crew goes looking for it in the dark, it may not be so obvious that itís been pushed off to one side. If prop and set piece placement backstage is a safety hazard, talk to the stage manager about it and let him or her decide what to do about it. Likewise, if you inadvertently take a prop that should remain in the wings to the green room with you, try to get it back up into the wings as soon as possible, preferably by handing it off to a crew member who comes to the green room to call someone. Donít just lay it down somewhere, promising to put it back later; itís easy to forget both that you had it and where you put it, and thereís bound to be a panicky search for it the next evening. Never sit on furniture thatís stored backstage Ė many pieces are borrowed, or may have been mended just well enough to last through the run. Your group doesnít want to have to explain why thereís makeup smeared on the upholstery, or be forced to rustle up a replacement if a chair leg is broken beyond repair.

Check your props before each performance, including any that are set for you to use onstage

Since crew is supposed to set the props, you should trust them to do their jobs, right? They donít need any back-up, do they? Well, yeah, they do.

Why itís important: If something that you need to use on stage isnít set, you can lay all the blame you want on whoever fell down on the job, but ultimately youíre the one who looks like a fool in front of the audience. This is a self-preservation measure, as well as back-up for the crew. If your props arenít there, blame yourself as well as the crew member who didn't set them, because you should have double-checked.

Donít peek through the curtains at the audience

If your Aunt Marge is supposed to be out in the house tonight, whoís going to notice if you sneak a quick peek through the curtains to see where sheís sitting? Everybody else in the audience, thatís who. And especially the director of the next production, whoís going to make special note of that unprofessional bozo who just stuck his nose through the curtain.

Why itís important: This goes along with not hanging out in the wings Ė if youíre on stage, youíre in the way of the crew. Actors should set foot on stage before the curtain opens only to make a quick check of their props, and then they need to vamoose. Needless to say, looking out through the curtains is strictly amateursville. Ever see Laurence Olivier stick his nose through the curtains to check out the house? Of course not. Do it, and youíre branding your whole theater group as unprofessional.

In rehearsal, be nice to the bookholder

The way to ask for a cue when you drop a line is "Line, please." Not "Oh (expletive deleted), whatís the (expletive deleted) line?!?," or "LINE, dammit!!!!," or "Ooooh, I know this one, itís right on the tip of my tongue, oh shoot, it starts withÖ, umÖ, oh, GIVE it to me!" This is called taking out your frustrations on the bookholder, and itís a no-no.

Why itís important: Your bookholder deserves common courtesy. You know that youíre upset because you canít get the lines, and while the bookholder may know that, too, itís still hard for them to get through an evening where theyíre receiving orders from someone who sounds like theyíre spitting tacks every time they talk to them. This approach also runs counter to what youíre trying to achieve as an actor, because whenever you let your own personal frustration show through, you drop character, which you then have to work at to get back into. And if you mumble and fuddle for 5 minutes before asking for a line, you slow down the pacing that you and the other cast members are trying to pick up. On a side note: Donít get into the habit of looking at the bookholder when you ask for a cue. This also causes you to drop character and will be a very difficult habit to break as you get closer to opening. If you donít get over it, you may actually find yourself inadvertently looking for the bookholder out in the house if you drop a line in performance.

Hold your temper until you get to the green room

You blew a cue or a crucial prop wasnít set, and the critic is in the house tonight. You come off stage ready to explode as soon as youíre out of sight of the audience. Keep a lid on it. Backstage is not the place to tell the world how you feel.

Why itís important: First of all, you run the risk of being heard, because youíre upset and probably not too cognizant of how loud you really are. In addition, an angry outburst is a distraction to the crew Ė you may compound the disaster by making them miss something else while they deal with you. Instead, use the time you take to get to the green room to cool down. If you must vent, do it there, but try not to get your fellow cast members too upset, especially the ones who have to go on after you.


Comments on this article:

Wonderful article! It wouldn't hurt, tho, to mention that all of the above rules apply to the crew as well. I've been on both sides of the headset, and have nearly run down actors with a piece of scenery because they were in the way, AND, I've nearly missed entrances because of crew members gathering and chatting in front of the only stage left entrance as well.

Keep up the good work!

Bernie Schuneman
Stage Coach Players
DeKalb, IL
Ed. Note: Excellent point.

Excellent article, I've printed it to give to my crew and cast in our current show. Another reason to listen carefully and do exactly what the crew says is "SAFETY"! When we were running "Damn Yankees", I told the actor doing the devil to stand in a particular place at a particular time, because a large flashpot in from of him would go off to cover his exit. You guessed it, he stood on top of the flashpot one night and got all the hair singed off his leg up to mid-thigh! From that day on, he always does exactly as I tell him!

Greg Weigold, TD
Chapin Community Theatre

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