Scared scriptless with stage fright

Last updated 05:00 30/06/2013
Actors
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAXNZ

STAGE FRIGHT: Kip Chapman, Mia Blake, Dai Henwood, Adam Gardiner and Elizabeth McRae.

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It's the actor's worst nightmare. The lights go up.They walk on stage. And then they're handed the script. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is only performed by the bravest. There is no rehearsal, no director and no indication of what the performance will entail. A revolving cast of 17 Kiwi actors will take on the challenge in Auckland from tomorrow night. Six of them share their 'worst nightmare' stories to date.

MIA BLAKE I have never been a big fan of having my head lower than my toes. Hanging upside down, standing on my head, cartwheels - they all fill me with great anxiety. I did a show years ago where I had to use two actors to steady me whilst I did a flip.

I dreaded this moment and it took all my acting power to remain in character and not go screaming from the room. We always rehearsed the flip in our warm-up but on opening night, in a last-minute panic two minutes before the show opened, I thought it'd be a good idea to rehearse it one more time. It was not a good idea. I somehow managed to land on my big toe, bending it in a way no big toe should ever be bent. The audience poured in. I nearly fainted from the pain but Doctor Theatre kicked in and I somehow made it through the show (flip included). After curtain call, pain flooded through me. My toe looked like one of those purple kumara 'Sweeties' you get at the supermarket. It was horrendous. I could barely walk and hadto be taken to A&E.

The nurse told me, "Do not do any more shows." So I went home, RICED [rested, iced, compressed and elevated] it, stayed in bed till the next afternoon, hobbled to the show, performed, went home and repeated this routine for three more nights. Thank God it was a short season. My toe is fine now but if you see me in a yoga class and I don't take the handstand option, you will now know why.

DAI HENWOOD I was performing my character P-Funk Chainsaw,a six-foot-five American wrestler in a tiny white guy's body. I was wearing tasselled jeans, a unitard and high-heeled boots. I thought I would make my entrance to stage memorable by putting a sparkler in my fly and lighting it just before I walked out - the plan was to impress the audience and then put it out in a glass of water.

I had never tried this before and when I lit the sparkler it started smoking, rather than sparkling - when I walked out on to stage I could only breathe smoke. Instead of starting my show with the well-prepared words and hilarious accent I'd prepared, I had an asthma attack and collapsed on the ground. I crawled off stage and the MC ran back on to save the show. The only upside was the audience laughed the entire time.

ELIZABETH McRAE On the day of the shoot I was introduced to the bull, which was already stamping and puffing in his stall. I felt the saliva drain from my mouth. I was to act out the process of artificial insemination - obtain the bull's sperm with a contraption on the bull's penis. The wrangler assured me that if the bull became at all irritable he would immediately pull me out of the way. I felt that was the least he could do but managed a weak thank you. I always try to co-operate with film crews because once you get the reputation of being a cow to work with, your chance of getting roles is diminished.

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The director described the close-up. "I want your head as close as possible to the bull's flank while you deliver your lines to the actor playing the vet. Don't forget to keep the hand action going and you'll have to project above the noise the bull is making." I assumed that there would be just one take - being what it was. But no, I was assured that the animal would oblige every nine minutes up to six times. The director called action, I yelled out the lines and managed to keep the hand action going. Any attempt at characterisation had vanished. The bull huffed and puffed and stamped alarmingly. After a few takes the shot was in the can.  In the final version of the film my character was crushed to death by the bull. I was dead before the opening credits rolled.

RIMA TE WIATA I was in a modern-take Aussie production of HMS Pinafore with Jon English years ago, which toured around. At one point in the show, Jon English had to throw me a pretend bomb, but one night he threw me a frozen chicken instead. I didn't know what to do with it so I threw it into the orchestra pit, thinking "that'll sort that out."

But Jon had guessed I would do that, and arranged for a cannon to go off in the orchestra pit with all these chicken feathers bursting into the air. It's the only time in my career that I actually collapsed on stage laughing, in front of an audience. Rolling around crying with laughter. Luckily, so was the audience!

ADAM GARDINER Send audience into fits of laughter during serious Shakespearean drama by wearing wig. Check. Asked by director to mouth the words while everyone else sings. Check. Have to run onstage naked because of wardrobe malfunction. Check. Have fellow actor kick aside couch you are trying to hide behind naked. Check. Dressed as giant baby and see the flash bulbs going off in the audience. Check. Pull off hilarious 'putting on trousers over gumboots without underpants' routine only to then discover fly is broken and open during curtain call. Check. Throw clothes into audience during Ladies Night and fire sexy thrust at what turns out to be young boy and horrified father. Check. Importance of self-medicating as therapy. Priceless.

KIP CHAPMAN It seemed like fate that I was asked to audition for one of the leads in Stewart Main's Fifty Ways of Saying Fabulous. I had recently come out of both drama school and the closet and this was a gay film that would propel me to stardom, so I desperately wanted to do my best. I perfected my country drawl, chose the right clothes but then realised I looked a little too 'city pale'. It was the middle of winter so my only option was a bit of spray tan. Now I didn't have much money, so I only bought a small bottle of bronzer and only applied it to the exposed areas - my face, neck,a bit of the chest and arms. I walked into my audition extremely confidently until they asked, "Can you start with your shirt off, please?" When I removed my shirt there was a very clear difference between my pale chest and my almost orange arms, face and neck. What was worst though was the triangle of orange that I had applied to where I thought my shirt would open to. Michael Dorman was excellent in the role and I watch the progress of his career with benevolent interest.

●White Rabbit, Red Rabbit plays July 1-13 at Auckland's Q Theatre. For bookings and performance times go to qtheatre.co.nz

- Sunday Magazine

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