The dangers of acting

"Every actor wants to be as authentic as possible." — Ian Swift
Ian Swift
Ian Swift

EH: Acting can be dangerous?

IS: Physical things happen to you that can be quite painful. I’ve had two instances, and I hope they were my last. They were both Shakespeare plays.

I broke my nose (of course inadvertently) on stage. That was during a very volatile and vigorous, production of “Julius Caesar.” I was Julius Caesar. In my assassination scene all the actors came up, simulated daggers and very slowly thrust their fists into me. Then, “Et tu Brute? Then fall, Caesar!” And I would fall. It was tricky to die on stage. I always tried different ways in rehearsal, and I finally pretty much had it down. But the other thing I was consumed with was blood being authentic. Every actor wants to be as authentic as possible. I tried different things, a bloody rag, blood pellets, nothing really worked. I gave up.

It was our last matinee. An actor gets complacent on stage after a long run; your mind begins to wander. Let’s face it: It’s like anything else — you get bored. My mind was wandering as I was getting stabbed. (It’s like, “What am I going to have for dinner tonight?”) I decided to fall differently. As I fell, I thought, “Instead of laying on my right side, I’ll land on my left side.” I didn’t make it and, as I landed, I hit my full face right on the parquet floor.

The pain (of course), if you’ve ever hit your nose like that, is just wrenching. Also, you don’t know if you’ve just completely disfigured yourself for life. You can’t check yourself out. You can’t look at the mirror. So I’m there lying face down, I feel moisture in my nose, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I’m bleeding.” Cinna comes running over and says triumphantly, “Tyranny is dead!” and rolls me over. As he rolls me over, blood spurts out of both nostrils, and runs down the side of my face. The actor playing Mark Anthony says, “Oh mighty Caesar, dost thou lie so low?”

I’m put on a litter, and I’m carried off stage. I immediately have to be brought on again for the oration speeches. I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. They carry me back out; this time, I’m lying on my back with dried blood on my face. That was quite an experience. At intermission I was taken to the hospital. Thank God that was the last production.

Then in “Hamlet,” the famous arras scene, Polonius is behind the curtain when Gertrude and Hamlet are having their mother-son/love-hate scene. Hamlet discovers he’s being eves-dropped upon; he takes his dagger and stabs through the arras. Toward the end of the run, for some inexplicable reason, I positioned my body slightly differently. That is all it took. He stabbed me, right where my hip meets my torso, full force. I didn’t expect, it of course. It was pitch-dark, too. All I could feel was extraordinary pain and absolute horror of what happened. Then he pulls away the arras, I fall forward and collapse dead. (Hello, we’ve been here before.) He drags Polonius’ dead body out into the center of the stage, and says something about, “You rat” and so on and so forth. They continue their scene, and I’m lying there, feeling moisture in my groin, and I’m going, “Oh my God! I’m bleeding and I can’t do anything about it.” That’s a long scene, seven minutes.

These things happen; actors do get hurt. These scenes were minor compared to fight scenes where actors have to really thrash about. Things do happen.

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