Actor’s Etiquette: Caring for Your Costumes

etiquette_Introduction_fromBook_xsm_04032348_11051341If you are working in a college or professional theater, there may be staff in charge of caring for your costumes.  If so, it is your responsibility to treat your costume with care:  pull up your trousers when you sit so you don’t stress the crotch seam; don’t let your dress’ train sweep the dirt off the floor; don’t eat in costume unless you have a robe or towel covering your front and your lap.

Your other responsibility in this situation is to alert the staff in a timely fashion to any problems with your costumes:  tears in the fabric, buttons that are coming lose, seams that are straining.  The sooner they know about it, the sooner they can be fixed.

If, however, you are doing a show where there is no one assigned to take care of costumes, then guess what?  Anything to do with your costumes, including the above, is also your job.

Maybe not the repair work.  Maybe.  But the daily cleaning and caring for your costume is.

What should you be doing?

When the make-up stains on your shirt collar start to become evident to those in the first row, you need to wash it.  When your costume starts to stink, either wash it or spray it with vodka (the cheapest and best way to freshen costumes, believe it or not.  Just don’t use Absolut.)

And please – iron it.  In between shows.  If you’re doing three or four performances a week, by the time you get to the last one, your pants look like you’ve spent all day in the car.  If your character is arriving at the girl’s house for a first date, rumpled is usually not the look you’re going for.

If your costume is a slip or a satin dress that’s been stored in a box in the theater, please iron it before the first show!  I did a show once with a young woman who had a simple satin wedding dress as one of her costumes.  It was her first show at this theater, so I assumed that she thought someone would be ironing it for her, and didn’t have time to do it herself on opening night after she got to the theater.  I expected, however, that she’d either ask about who was taking care of the costumes or iron it herself before the next performance.

Wrong assumption.  After a few nights, I took to ironing it myself before she got to the theater.  (I couldn’t figure out how to gently suggest that she do it, and so left it to the director to mention, which he didn’t.  But I found the wrinkly dress a bit embarrassing on stage and so did it myself.)

And while we’re on the subject – if you use anything (costume or props) that has been collecting dust for years on some back shelf – please clean it.  The dust on a patent leather purse, the dirt on the flowers on your hat, and the dull scuffs on your shoes can all be seen from the audience.  Leave them in that condition ONLY if it is appropriate to your character, please!


Actor’s Etiquette: The Little Old Deaf Lady in the Back Row


This is a matter of courtesy to your audience, not your co-workers.

The audience would like to hear what you are saying.  A good script has had all extraneous words excised from it.  The audience needs to hear every one that remains.

Think of a stage as a room.  Whatever voice is adequate to fill that room, whether it’s the size of a standard classroom, or your living room, or a spacious great room, there is a voice that will fill it appropriately.  We don’t shout in kitchens unless something is burning or you’re about to pour vinegar into the pot, thinking it is wine.  Most kitchens aren’t that big that we need to raise our voices above normal speaking tones.

Remember that “normal” is dependent on the size of the room you’re in.  The larger the room, the louder your voice needs to be in order to be heard by anyone in that room.

Many new actors use a volume level that is appropriate to the size of the stage, but NOT to the stage plus auditorium.  The room you are occupying and have to fill is the entire space used by both actors and audience.  It doesn’t matter that the person you are speaking to is a character standing four feet away.  Your Four Foot Voice isn’t going to make it to the tenth row.

Some people have naturally loud voices, and some people have very small, quiet voices.  I’ve had students doing a scene six feet away from me, and I can barely hear them, their voices are so small and shy.  It’s fine to use that voice off stage, but on stage, your voice has to be big enough to be heard, as the saying goes, by the Little Old Deaf Lady in the Back Row.

In other words, the person sitting furthest away from you needs to be able to hear what you say as clearly as they could if you were sitting next to them.

Don’t worry about the fact that you’re speaking louder than the person in the front row needs in order to be able to hear you.  Your responsibility isn’t to him.  Your responsibility is to Grandma, who can’t walk well and so parked herself in the first empty seat she found when she walked into the theater.

Sometimes when I stand in the back of the theater and ask someone to shout, I still can’t hear them.  They are sure they are roaring, but I have to strain to understand them.  So have someone give you feedback on how audible you are from the back row.  Once you get a thumbs-up from them, you know what is required and that you can actually produce that volume, even if you aren’t accustomed to speaking at that level.  (If you can’t produce that volume or sustain it over multiple performances, that’s when you need to seek the help of a vocal coach, who can teach you how to use your vocal instrument.)

Remember that the quieter moments in a play nevertheless have to be heard by those in the last row.  Stage whispers aren’t like ordinary whispers.  Check with your director on your levels, and take his admonitions seriously.

megaphoneIf you are challenged in this area, then it’s going to be even harder for you to learn to shout when you need to in the context of a play (because you’re angry, for instance).  Best to overcome the challenge now, before you’re faced with that kind of scene in rehearsals!

One last thing:  Remember that people absorb sound in the same way that the soft materials used in soundproofing equipment do.  In other words, the larger the audience, the louder you have to be to be heard.

Actor’s Etiquette: Be Quiet

manners (1)When you’re not on stage, either in rehearsals or performance, be quiet.  The sound of your voice is distracting to those who are on stage, even if the audience can’t hear you.  The green room typically isn’t a place you can speak in normal tones.  I recently did a show where the action on stage was very quiet but the green room was very noisy, and not only did it throw me off, it was so audible to me that I can’t believe the front rows of the audience couldn’t hear it, too.

I’ve also heard people standing in the wings talk in a normal voice rather than a whisper.  It’s just disrespectful to those who are on stage.  If you have to do more than whisper, go far enough away from the stage that you are certain that no one can hear you.  Depending on the design of the theater, even the dressing room may not be far enough away.  Just think about where you are before you start speaking.

I understand that performances can be tedious if you have a small role, and staying silent for two hours isn’t the most fun in the world.  When the offstage sounds start to resemble a party, however, that’s too much.  There’s something in between.  Find it.

Actor’s Etiquette: Tech Rehearsals

tea-etiquette-v2We hate them, but they are a necessary evil.

They are tedious.  They start late.  Everything stops while they fix a problem.  Couldn’t they have figured this out ahead of time?

It doesn’t matter.  It is what it is.  Take a deep breath and be patient.  Everyone is frustrated.  Stay attentive to what is being said by the director or the technical crew, so you can help them.  Don’t get so involved in conversations with other actors that you lose sight of why you’re here.  Be as helpful as you can by getting into position when they need you to be somewhere, and by running something as many times as they need to to get it right.

You’ve had a lot of rehearsals to get it right.  The crew gets one, and there are all kinds of other reasons you aren’t privy to that the Tech isn’t going smoothly.  Don’t roll your eyes or lose your temper.  It will all be over soon.  And don’t worry that you can’t do any decent acting at this rehearsal.  It’s not for you, it’s for them.  You can act in the dress rehearsal.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your best.  No, you may not be able to sink into the character in this rehearsal, but the crew needs to understand the general timing and events of the show so they can match their cues to them.  Be sure you give them what they need.

Actor’s Etiquette: Notes

Decorum-Dress-Etiquette-BookNotes are what the director gives the actors once run-throughs begin.  He takes written notes during the run-through and comments on the actors’ performances either after the run-through or at the beginning of the next rehearsal.

The purpose of notes is twofold.  First, it allows you to run scenes or acts without interruption.  Second, it is intended to be an efficient way of communicating what is necessary.  Once you get to run-throughs, there is usually less time for the director to talk because so much time has been spent actually rehearsing.  So the idea is:  convey the information and get the hell out of Dodge.

If your director gives notes at the end of the night (which is usually more profitable, since you’re more apt to remember what he’s talking about than you will at the next rehearsal), remember that everyone is tired and wants to go home.  This means that it’s not the time to get into a long discussion about anything.  Listen to the director, acknowledge what he is telling you, answer his questions briefly and clearly, ask questions succinctly if you are confused.

And leave it at that.  If you have a bone to pick, do it after the rehearsal has ended and people are free to head to their cars.

As I’ve talked about elsewhere, bones are best picked after you’ve had the chance to sleep on it.  It’s late.  You may feel differently in the morning.  And believe me, the director is tired, too.

It’s usually a good idea to write the notes down and review them before the next rehearsal.  No matter how good your memory is, it’s easy to forget a note, because (wait for it!) it’s late and you’re tired.

Notes usually involve fine-tuning issues, things you may need to think about before the next rehearsal, but which are easily fixed.  Notes about problem areas will probably be run several times in rehearsals, but if not, don’t be afraid to ask that some general rehearsal time be spent on them.

If you get the same note repeatedly, it means this:  “You aren’t paying attention to what I’m telling/asking you, because I keep having to say it.  It would be nice if you’d actually do something about the problem before we open.”  The first time it’s repeated (because you forgot it since you didn’t write it down), the actors will forgive you.  But after that, they are all thinking to themselves, “Would you just do it already, so we don’t have to listen to this note again, because (wait for it!) it’s late and we’re tired and we want to go home.”

Actor’s Etiquette: Props

etiquette (1)If you have stage business involving props, ask your director or stage manager to provide rehearsal props.  If they don’t, bring something in yourself that will allow you to get familiar with the timing, etc., involved in the business.

If you are using props provided by the theater, respect them.  They are tools of the trade, not toys.  Handling them needlessly increases the probability that they will get broken, creating more work for someone (probably not you).  Use them in the context of the play, but that’s all.

Make sure you know where to get your props from and where to return them when you are finished with them.

Don’t touch anything on the prop table unless it is your personal prop and you need to bring it on stage with you.  The backstage crew has put things where they are for a reason.  If you have a problem with a prop’s location, have a conversation with the stage manager.

Check your props when you first get to the theater and before you begin putting on your costume and make-up, so you’re sure it’s done before the house opens.  Check both your onstage (set) and offstage (hand) props.

If something is damaged when you are using it, bring it to the stage manager’s attention as soon as you can, so it can be fixed or replaced.

Actor’s Etiquette: Cell Phones


etiquette2Turn them off when you’re at rehearsal.  All the way off.

If you are expecting an important call that you must deal with during the rehearsal, put your phone on vibrate and give it to someone to hold, asking them to let you know at the earliest break in proceedings that your phone rang.  Most calls can wait to be returned until that break.  Unless your wife is going into labor or something equally urgent, tell anyone who needs to call you during rehearsals to leave you a message and that you will return the call as quickly as you can.

Text messages are a great way for people to get in touch with you when it’s urgent, because it saves you listening to long voicemail messages about things that can wait until rehearsal is over.

I’ve worked with people who leave their ringer on, but do not acknowledge incoming calls when they are on stage.  It’s fine except for the fact that it keeps ringing, and that is very distracting for anyone who is trying to act.  So please be courteous.  Once upon a time, we only had landline phones, calls waited until rehearsals were over, and usually nothing calamitous happened.

You are, of course, welcome to check your messages at any breaks called by the director.

Actor’s Etiquette: Be Punctual

mannersYou have a limited amount of rehearsal time, and no one really knows if it’s going to be enough or not.  Don’t waste any of it.  Get to rehearsal early enough that you can take off your coat, change to your rehearsal shoes, get out your script, turn off your cell phone, and gather your bearings.  If you need to eat when you get to the theater, get there early enough that you’ve finished swallowing by the time rehearsal is to start.

If everyone arrives at the time the director has called for rehearsal to begin, the odds are very good that ten minutes will be wasted while everyone greets everyone else and gets their act together.  It is courteous to get that out of the way PRIOR to the called time.  If you don’t, then whoever IS ready to begin at that time has to wait for you.

Tech week is always difficult.  If you can be early, that’s often a good idea, because sorting out technical issues always takes more time than you think.  The earlier you get there, the earlier you can go home.

On performance nights, know when the stage manager has called you for and be there on time.  No one wants to worry about whether or not you’ve had car trouble.

If for any reason you are going to be AT ALL LATE for ANY rehearsal or performance, call and let someone know as soon as you know, so that they can deal with your lateness appropriately.

If the schedule has been changed and you are no longer expected at rehearsal, confirm that with your director or stage manager.  Some shows don’t really have a schedule, and what is being dealt with at future rehearsals is so fluid that it is easy for actors to get confused about when they are needed.  So check and double-check about when you are required to be there!

Actor’s Etiquette: Be Polite

ws_etiquette_ALL_340x280Be respectful of other points of view.  Expressing your own is fine if you don’t make the other person feel wrong.  If you think you have, apologize.

Don’t yell, and if you do, apologize.

Don’t argue with the director.  Discussion is fine.  Argument isn’t.  If you do, apologize.

Don’t criticize other actors, on or off stage.  If you do, apologize.

Be nice to the technical crew.  They work hard, and they aren’t your servants.  They don’t get much appreciation.  Say thank you.  A lot.

Directors are almost as unappreciated as the technical crew, and they’ve been busting their butt since long before you got involved.  Let them know how much they really meant to the success of the show.

Say thank you to your fellow actors, too.  They are part of the reason why you look good on stage.

Be cheerful, even if you’ve had a bad day.  Put it aside for the time you’re at the theater.

Remember that you have to live with these people for a period of months, and they have to live with you.  Keep all your relationships at the theater healthy and happy!

Actor’s Etiquette: Oh, Do You Have a Line?

etiquetteIf you’re sloppy with how you memorize lines, it’s very possible to find that you’re talking when someone else is supposed to be talking.  This is annoying on a number of levels.

I did a show once with an actor who decided to run two of his lines together, which meant that saying my line (which was only a single word:  “No!”) muddied things a bit.  He had an emotional reason for making this choice, even if it was a bit misplaced.  I ended up cutting my line out, because the way he was handling the scene just made it seem messy and as if someone (me, probably) had screwed up a line somewhere.

I had plenty of lines in the show, so losing a word was hardly a problem.  However, the lines were written as they were to produce a laugh, one we never got because of how the actor was playing the scene.  All the more amusing, really, since the actor in question considered himself to be a comic.  But I always felt badly about it, because it was the audience who lost out.  (And no, the director did nothing to fix the problem.  C’est la vie.)

Overlapping dialogue is fine, even when the playwright hasn’t written it to indicate overlapping.  It makes things more realistic, and sometimes helps to convey urgency or passion on some level.  It’s nothing that you want to do too frequently, because the other actors may start to feel that you are “all about you”, and not about the play.  Nor do you want to overlap more than a word or two.

You also want to be sure that you aren’t overlapping any important information or emotion.  Never step on another actor’s moment.  And never kill a laugh intentionally, as my scene partner did.  Audiences love to laugh; give them every opportunity!

Also, be careful in doing this when the line you’re overlapping belongs to someone who has a small part in the play.  If it is really necessary and appropriate, that’s one thing, but do remember that actors with small parts relish every word and moment they get on stage.  Let them have them!  If you’re the lead and they have twelve lines, you won’t endear yourself to them by stepping on one of them.

If you find yourself talking at the same time someone else is speaking, go back and check the script.  Make sure you’re handling your end properly and that you haven’t misunderstood the scene or memorized it incorrectly.  If the problem turns out to be your scene partner, have a word with your director in private.  With any luck, he’ll fix the matter, and if he doesn’t, do what I did in the above instance:  make your best judgment about what you can do that will best serve the play in this instance.