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Shakespeare & Beyond

"Something is desperate": Theatrical mishaps and embarrassing moments with Shakespeare

In 2014, I was playing Marcellus and Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) in a production of Hamlet. It’s fun to play Marcellus. You get to run around the battlements with Hamlet and Horatio looking for the ghost. You swear on Hamlet’s sword that you’ll “never make known what you have seen tonight.” Best of all, you get to say one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

In our cut of the script, the line that preceded mine was “He waxes desperate with imagination.” One night, Horatio said his line and the word “desperate” snagged in my mind. As I jogged offstage in pursuit of Hamlet, I looked out into the audience and exclaimed, “Something is desperate in the state of Denmark!”

As far as embarrassing onstage moments go, it could be worse. But I still cringe when I think about it. The show only ran for four weekends. When you have a really famous line, you want say it as many times as you can.

But “something is desperate” is a perfect way to describe the feeling you have when something goes wrong during a performance. Most actors will recognize the panicked feeling of trying to recover from a misplaced prop, forgotten line, or missed entrance. Sometimes, you make the mistake. Other times, events are out of your control, like the time during a performance of Midsummer when my clip-on suspenders unclipped from the back of my trousers, swung all the way over my head, and hit me on the nose (actually, that might have happened more than once). We reached out to our theater partners across the country to ask them about wacky mishaps and embarrassing moments that they’ve endured (and recovered from) during Shakespeare plays on their stages.

Hang in there, Cleo!

Allie Magee of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival wrote to us a production of Antony and Cleopatra that featured an ironic soundtrack:

At St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, in the beautiful but lively Forest Park, we have to embrace the random sounds of the park. One night during a production of Antony and Cleopatra, a staff member recalls the distinct music of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” from a nearby wedding at the exact time Cleopatra lay dying on stage.


“You can teeell by the way I use my walk…” Kari Ely and Shirine Babb in Antony & Cleopatra, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, 2015. Photo: J. David Levy.

The cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” including Renea, Lilli, and Lilli’s dress. Folger Theatre, 2022. Photo: Brittany Diliberto.

The Festival’s free summer production of Twelfth Night, directed by Lisa Portes, opens in St . Louis’s Forest Park on May 31 and runs nightly Tuesday – Sunday through June 25.

A star is born

Renea S. Brown recently appeared in Folger Theatre’s Our Verse in Time To Come and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as assistant directing Aaron Posner and Teller’s The Tempest at Round House Theatre. Last December, Renea joined us on our Shakespeare Lightning Round and shared a pair of embarrassing moments… one of which happened during her very first performance ever:

I was a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was nine years old. I had this beautiful little purple dress that our parents helped sew together… And my first time onstage, I farted! And everyone heard it. The audience heard it. There was no way of hiding it.

Undaunted, Renea didn’t let a little nervous gas stop her theatrical career. But even twenty years later, she was reminded that you can’t always predict what will go wrong onstage.

“Lilli [Hokama, who played Hermia] in Folger’s Midsummer… the back of her dress came undone while we were dancing at the end. I was trying to fix it for her, so we both kind of looked like we were grinding up on each other… I was trying to fix her dress!”

Renea is currently in rehearsal for The Legend of Georgia McBride  at Arizona Theatre Company. She also makes TikToks for the Folger.

Pause for dramatic effect

Brian Herndon, who will appear this summer in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s Cymbeline, recalled a production of Macbeth he was in while getting his MFA from another of our theater partners, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

I was a first-year MFA at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and my first performance on the mainstage was as Young Siward in Macbeth. I had a truly grisly death where Macbeth took my sword away and simultaneously gutted me with his hand axe while slitting my throat with my own sword. Opening night came, and I charge up the vom wearing 25 pounds of chainmail, sword drawn, really feeling like I had arrived. Greg Thornton, playing the title role, looks over at me, and waits for me to say my first line… which has totally disappeared from my brain.  I see Greg’s expression change from “Who is this little English solider who thinks he can defeat me” to “Who is this student who is taking an acting moment” to “Are we EVER going to be able to continue?” My whole body breaks out in sweat, and I am mortified. In what was probably five seconds but seemed an eternity, “What is thy name?” finally comes out of my mouth and Greg rolls his eyes before saying, “Thou’lt be afraid to hear it.” He kills me with a little extra relish that night, and I am so happy to get to collapse on the floor dead until the lights change and I crawl offstage with my metaphorical tail between my actual legs.

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s free production of Cymbeline will tour parks across the Bay Area from July 22 to September 10.

“Want to save your changes to ‘Tempest_Script_2020?’”

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Production Manager Jenna Worden shared a story with a happy ending:

It was the early days of the pandemic and virtual theatre, and we were doing a staged reading of The Tempest. The cast was mostly memorized, but had the script pulled up on their computers. The actor playing Antonio accidentally closed their script document in the midst of convincing Sebastian he should be King. He is such a seasoned pro that he was able to improvise Shakespeare—iambic pentameter and all—until he was able to find his script again. No one watching would have even noticed, but we all still laugh about it!

Catch a sci-fi Romeo and Juliet  from the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Stage2 this weekend, May 12 and 13. Then, join them this summer on Boston Common for Macbeth, beginning July 19.


The American Players Theatre’s Empty Box Award is given out every season for “Royal Screwups and Extraordinary Scenery Chewing.” Core company member Jim Ridge tells the story of some quick-thinking during a performance of The Comedy of Errors:

Visit the American Players Theatre’s YouTube channel to watch their entire Empty Box series.

“Is this a . . . coat hanger which I see before me?”

Our partners at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company shared a pair of theatrical mishaps with us:

We were doing a production of Macbeth in 1993. The actor playing Macbeth came on stage with the murderers. The costume the actor playing Macbeth was wearing was a long robe That went down to the floor and a little bit beyond. He’s pacing the stage and trailing along behind him, stuck to the hem of the back of the robe is a coat hanger. The actors playing the murderers, noticed it, and one of them, put their foot out and stop the coat hanger from flapping around before the audience found out.

Love triangle

One night during As You Like It, during the scene where Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) marries Orlando, an audience member stood up and said that she wanted to marry Orlando. So, Rosalind [played by Dani Heard] says “Oh, friend. That’s going to be a problem.” But the audience member didn’t sit down for a minute. Dani tried to bargain with “Can I marry him first?” But the woman offered to arm wrestle Dani for him.

Eventually Orlando just picked the scene back up. The woman tried to interrupt the show later and the actor playing Touchstone said, “Sit down!” The woman sat down in the middle of the aisle. The patron shoved $100 into Dani’s hand in the lobby after the show. It was bonkers.

A new production of As You Like It  is onstage now at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. The show runs through May 28.

Thrown under the bus

Justin McCombs is currently appearing in the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind. He recalled an awkward moment in a past production with the company:

I was in a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Three actors attempt to tell all of Shakespeare’s plays in 90 minutes, and it obviously goes off the rails, but we never thought we’d get into this particular conundrum. In Act Two we focus on Hamlet, and there’s an audience participation scene where we ask sections of the house to represent Ophelia’s psyche. The scripted gag is to call out one audience member who isn’t enthusiastic and make them do the silly moves and call and response statements “all by yourself.” When the actor spotting and then playfully chastised a young teenager in the audience who was not participating, his mother lightly tapped her son on the knee and responded to the actor, “He’s mute.” The audience, and the actor, were stunned. The actor was immediately apologetic and said he had to pull his foot out of his mouth, and myself and the third performer had no other recourse but to tease our sheepish friend that he was an absolute “monster” for his mistake, and playfully “throw him under the bus.” We were gleefully relentless, and the teenager and his mom had a great laugh at the actor’s mistake and all was well!

Justin McCombs and the cast of “All the Great Books (Abridged)” at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Shakespeare Company.

Trouble in Mind runs through June 3 at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

Have you every had something go wrong while you were onstage or waiting in the wings? Tell us in the comments! Don’t be shy. You’re in great company.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, American Players Theatre, Atlanta Shakespeare Company, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and San Francisco Shakespeare Festival are members of the Folger’s Theater Partnership Program.


Cornwall came out in armored glory (in over 110 degree weather and stomped on Gloucester’s eyes. Spun around when accosted by the servant, letting his floor-length cape flare in the stifling Texas semi-breeze, and attacked with a long-sword of vengeance, not noticing the breeze picking up the hem of his masculinely handsome cape, lifting it straight up, and dropping it over his head. Completely bound, the stifled actor whispered loudly to the servant, “Kill me! Kill me!” This effeminate youngster playing the servant seemed paralyzed by the predicament and stood gaping at the spectacle for what seemed an interminable moment. “For the love of god, kill me!” He croaked louder. After a tortuously long silence, a pathetic single stab eased Cornwall’s suffering with lackeys dragging Cornwall off to the sound of uproarious guffaws as patrons under the stars, laughed so heartily they were in danger of revisiting their beer and bar-b-q.
Not quite as spectacular and more of an internal conflict, Banquo began his soliloquy about the true nature of his ‘bro,’ not noticing the large moth capture in the blazing stage lights. After the first line and a powerful inhalation necessary to capture the Shakespeare’s brilliant text, the stunned moth was sucked directly into said actor’s gullet, causing a momentary hiatus when the unfortunate Thespian couldn’t decide to yack it up, inhale, or swallow. Thankfully, instinct took over and sent the offending insect into the pit of his stomach, I suppose recognizing the path that many ‘butterflies’ had led before this and many other entrances. Though a bit scratchy, he stammered through the rest of the speech and looked forward to death at the hands of ruffians.
Dr. Tony E. Medlin — May 20, 2023

Dr. Tony E. Medlin — May 20, 2023


During a matinee of Cymbeline at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival a number of years ago, a woman in the audience was so overcome at the sight of Giacomo emerging from the chest in Imogen’s bedchamber, she shouted: “Oh Hell, No!” No one in the theater laughed. No one could, at the utter creepiness of it all. It was a perfect production! ☺️

Nathan Woolsey — May 25, 2023


I was once called up to be Ophelia’s Psyche. (The young lay called up to be Ophelia – whose job it is to stand there, was lovely). The company didn’t know that I”d been in the company 15 years before. I ham,med it up and a good time was had by all, except Ophelia who blushed a LOT.

Carl Dershem — May 27, 2023


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