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No, dear viewer, that wasn't in the script

October 15, 2006|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

ALCOHOL- and drug-fueled mishaps. Dirty tricks and wonky props. Blown lines, excretory indiscretions, snarky critics, disgruntled audience members, rats, fire, freak injuries and bizarre deaths.

Brad Schreiber calls his book "Stop the Show! A History of Insane Incidents and Absurd Accidents in the Theater" (Thunder's Mouth Press) "95% fun and, for a little perspective, about 5% horror."

A Los Angeles-based entertainment and theater writer, Schreiber culled his anecdotal harvest of unscripted tragic and comic disasters from biographies and autobiographies and first-hand from headliners and small-town theater folk.

He was inspired by the memory of a friend's wardrobe malfunction in Terrence McNally's play "Noon." Unbeknownst to the actor, the audience's uproarious laughter was sparked by the revealing inadequacies of his costume -- "kinky leather underwear."

In live theater "there are no edits if something goes wrong," Schreiber says. "It happens then and there. But that's part of the electricity."

A sampling:

* During a production of "Julius Caesar," actors Joseph Maher and John Tillinger were interrupted by an offstage pay phone. "With the dead body of Caesar bloody at their feet, the actors and audience heard the pay phone ring and ring. Finally, Maher turned to Tillinger and asked conspiratorially, 'What if it's for Caesar?' "

* The crucifixion scene in a 1960s presentation of the Passion play "The Christus" took a farcical turn when the elderly actor playing Barabbas was tied to a cross, tried to utter a line and lost his upper plate. Jesus, played by Tony Alicata, "began laughing uncontrollably. And as he did so, his cross shook. The curtain, mercifully, immediately came down."

* George S. Kaufman sent a telegram to one of the leads in "Of Thee I Sing" during a performance in London. "During the interval, William Caxton was handed the Kaufman telegram and read the following words. 'AM WATCHING YOUR PERFORMANCE FROM THE REAR OF THE HOUSE. WISH YOU WERE HERE.' "

* Hard-drinking Richard Burton found himself in urgent need of relief while sword fighting Michael Redgrave in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Henry the Fourth, Part I." Nature prevailed, but Burton, despite soggy tights, threw himself into the scene.

His costar was clued in backstage. " 'I did think you were perspiring rather heavily, dear boy,' Redgrave admitted. 'You left large, wet footprints on the stage.' "


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