Things don’t always happen the way they are supposed to on stage, beyond the matter of whether or not you remember your lines. Props don’t get placed, or they’re in the wrong place. Things break. Sound cues go awry. What’s an actor to do?
The first thing, as with dropped lines, is not to panic. There is always a way out or around the problem, even if it’s not ideal. It’s easier to deal with than dropped lines or forgotten entrances, because you can generally speaking stick fairly close to the script without anyone suddenly feeling lost.
Here’s a common one that often is mishandled: Something falls to the ground: an earring, a potato chip, a pencil. No one retrieves it, because (a) it’s not in the script and (b) they’re afraid of disrupting the play, because they have to move several feet out of position to retrieve the object. They might have to move on someone else’s speech, and they want to be polite to their fellow actors.
If you don’t retrieve it, the audience will obsess over it: “Are they going to pick it up?” “What if someone steps on it accidentally?” “Why aren’t they picking it up?
Why, indeed? Wouldn’t you pick it up if this was real life?
I rest my case.
In reality, moments like these are great opportunities to show that you really are “staying in the moment” and add a degree of verisimilitude to the scene. Don’t let them pass you by! Take the challenge!
I once played Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. The “seance” scene requires a certain number of chairs, and one night, I realized in the middle of the scene that we were short one. Not a problem: I suggested to my host that we needed one more chair given how many people we were, and perhaps he’d be so kind as to fetch an extra from the dining room. I filled the gap when he went to fetch the chair with some plausible conversation, and the very practical problem was addressed without the audience being aware of any problem.
Need to pick up that earring? You can do so while still staying in character and listening to what’s going on in the scene. If it’s your line, that’s even better. Covering unusual moments while you are the one speaking gives you full control over the situation, and you can add dialogue as necessary to make it seamless and get yourself back into position.
But what about things that are material to the plot that go wrong, things over which you have no control? Missed sound and light cues, for instance?
The doorbell is supposed to ring, and it doesn’t? How about, “Did you hear something? It sounds like there’s someone outside.” Say this while being generally puzzled and concerned about why there would be someone at your door who isn’t ringing the bell, and the audience will never know the sound cue was missed. (These are adjectives, but the underlying verb might be something like “to worry about one’s security at home.”)
Does the phone ring too early? Not a problem, answer it, ask the party to hold, and finish the necessary lines before beginning the phone call section of the script. Does the phone not ring when it should? Call the other person yourself, or create dialogue or activity that will wake up the sound booth, if only by the fact that you’re doing something that isn’t in the script. Or, if you can, find a way to incorporate the information conveyed by the phone call (“By the way, I spoke to Joe earlier today, he said he’ll be here around 3:00, which is in ten minutes.”)
Of course, sometimes things just go wrong, and there is nothing to be done except to pretend that the mishap didn’t occur. Does the gun not go off? Just pretend it did and fall down dead. The audience knows we live in an imperfect world and that this is, after all, a play, not real life. It may deflate the drama a bit, but they’ll forgive you. As with the missed line issue — audiences appreciate the professional effort to deal with the unexpected.