The Actor’s Nightmare
by Marvin Payne

This being a column about journal keeping, I’ll start with a journal entry.

29 July 1992

“It’s been many months since I last dreamed ‘the actor’s nightmare’…”


The “actor’s nightmare” is when you find yourself onstage and, for any of myriad reasons ((or for none at all)), you don’t know your lines. All actors have this nightmare. Somewhere in cyber-land some reader of Backstage Graffiti is struggling right now with the question of whether or not they’re really an actor. They acted in school, or in the stake production of “Saturday’s Visionary Doodler,” and they’re wondering if there is greasepaint in their blood or merely stars in their eyes. ((I myself wonder this at the closing of every show, or while looking through any given eighty pages of dialogue that need to be memorized.)) I suppose either condition ((greasy blood or starry eyes)) can interfere mightily with normal physical functions, but here is the answer you have been aching for. If you dream the “actor’s nightmare” you are an actor. If you don’t, you aren’t.


“…but it may return when I drift off (to sleep) in a few moments. Tonight one of our cast was stranded in Salt Lake and missed the first act. Jayne sent me in off the bench…”

(Suddenly I see that the rest of the journal entry would require so many explanatory footnotes, like who “Jayne” is, et cetera ((notice what a pretty phrase “et cetera” is when you don’t just write “etc.” Put Yul Brynner out of your head and just say it over a few times.)), that I think I’d better just tell the story from memory. Footnotes online are problematic. You have to scroll to the end of the whole piece to find them. I once read a Hugh Nibley article online and wore out three cursors.)

Okay, I was playing in the band for a production, at Sundance, of Li’l  Abner. Banjo and harmonica mostly, but also a little percussion and lots of  sound effects when Stupefyin’ Jones would strike comely poses. It’s time to start, and the player who delivers the role of the Government Scientist hasn’t shown up. (This is the character who comes to Dogpatch and interviews the hillbilly residents to determine if their town would make a good target for bomb testing.) The artistic director of Sundance, Jayne Luke (see aforementioned), yanked me out of the band and tagged me to go in and play the crucial scene. We tore through costumes from the alternating show, Carousel, and found a suit that my character might wear, and, mercifully, the Scientist had been blocked to carry a clipboard, upon which Jayne slapped a couple of pages of script.

Now for the tricky part. The band had been playing for weeks from offstage left. The pianist and conductor could see the stage, but I couldn’t. I hadn’t the slightest clue where the Scientist had been directed to go, or where any of the other characters with whom the Scientist interacted were to be found. (I think maybe Jayne didn’t know this.) The solution: I decided to play a Government Scientist with really, really, really bad eyesight. I scrounged up some prop spectacles and stumbled out onto the stage, earnestly addressing trees, rocks, and outhouses. The other players turned and pushed and led me hither and thither, and I think the audience hadn’t a clue I was faking it, when we had a SUDDEN INVOCATION OF MURPHY’S LAW: The scene in question was three pages long. I had pages on my clipboard, which the audience completely forgave me for peering at quizzically. Trouble is, I had only two. But I did happen to remember the line that closed the scene, so when I lifted that second page and saw a blank clipboard, I intoned it with great authority and got the heck offstage. This gave the rest of the cast the creative opportunity to figure out how to sandwich into the next couple of scenes all the pretty critical exposition that I had just edited out of the play.

They did heroically well and, happily, the real Government Scientist showed up at intermission. This was a great gift, because I wasn’t looking forward to the Government Scientist scene at the beginning of Act Two, the one involving the Latin American dance production number. The dress and fruited hat wouldn’t have looked nearly so good on me as it did on her. It was the actor’s nightmare by necessity.

A couple of years ago I was asked to take a role in the two-player piece, The Mystery Of Irma Vep, an astoundingly silly show in which two guys play five different people, two of them women. It’s designed to be played with no explanation–the audience is just supposed to buy it, and, in these days of gender disorientation, glory in the fact that there’s no explanation. But this audience was Provo, Utah, and these actors were us. So we just had the stage manager apologize to the audience before every performance that three of the cast members had been involved in a serious make-up accident, and so all of the roles this evening would be played by Mr. Brower (Chris) and Mr. Payne ( This also helped ease us over the speed bump of both the glamorous English actress and the fussy housekeeper having full beards. We made a whole show out of the actor’s nightmare–the actor’s nightmare by design. It was the only way.

(There really is, incidentally, a one-act play called The Actor’s Nightmare that I once watched until hives began to rise on my neck.) Once I watched a performance of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew at an outdoor theatre north of San Francisco. Sitting on the front row was a big strapping guy with his foot resting on the edge of the stage. From the toe of said foot extending to his hip was a snow-white brand-new cast. The show’s director, wearing a too-tight costume, came out before the show and explained that this was the leading man who had been injured and so he, the director, would be taking the actor’s place. He apologized for the fact that he would be referring to a script, and all of us in the audience agreed smilingly that it was fine with us. Trouble in the first scene, as he held the script at arm’s length, discovering while acting that he couldn’t see it so well. We were all grateful that we had paid for a comedy, but equally grateful when he showed up in the second scene wearing Elizabethan clothing and 1970’s eyeglasses. So grateful we laughed and applauded. This must have served as a sort of stimulus, because in the next scene, the leading lady had on her glasses. Before the night was over, everybody in the cast was bespectacled, even if it was a pair of shades they’d snatched out of somebody’s glovebox. The actor’s nightmare as happy theatrical accident. It was one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre.

But they call it, after all, a nightmare, and it usually is. I dreamed the actor’s nightmare one night last week. I can’t remember the show (oh, I should mention that typically everybody else on stage knows exactly what to do and say), but it was on the stage of the brand-new 900-seat theatre at Dixie High School in St. George, Utah. That’s what makes the dream a nightmare: the 900 seats. Well, not the seats so much as the people sitting in them. They’re expecting you to deliver. (In elementary school theatre, a play is often really a memorization test. If the lines are all said, in order, the young actor, usually a blood relative, has passed the test, and our standing ovation is the sincere–ecstatic? explosive? excessive?–reward. But it’s different in grown-up theatre.) Those 900 paid for a great story. They want to see into a real, breathing life (that of the character you’re supposed to have learned), and feel the passion and humor and pathos of that life.

Sort of like the readers of your journal.

Since this column began, I’ve been looking ahead, trying to frame the Relevant Application, the little box labeled “Ideas for Home Teachers.” I could of course wax exhortational and cite chapter and verse and prophets living and dead. Or I might just quietly ask the detonating question, “Have you ever had the journal keeper’s nightmare?”



“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)


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