Cowan Palace: Yeah, What DO You Say To An Actor Who Just Bombed On Stage?

This week Ashley interviews herself.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Tribune ran an article titled, What do you say to an actor who just bombed on stage?

Oh, juicy topic, right?! What DO you say?! The piece explored the thoughts of a few local artists and while San Francisco may be miles away from Chicago’s scene, many of the opinions of those interviewed are universal and quite relatable. Whether you’re the actor in a show that may be more “bomb” than “da bomb” or whether you’re sitting in the audience as a friend watching an explosion, talking about the experience afterward can be awkward, uncomfortable, and unpleasant.

What are the expectations of those in your creative circle? Are you on the side of, “if you don’t have anything nice, don’t say anything at all”? or are you “Team Nice Guy Even If I Gotta Lie”?

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I decided I’d answer some of the questions in the Chicago Tribune article because I’m sure they would love that. Here are my thoughts:

What’s going through your head when you’re watching a terrible show?

Sometimes I’m thinking, “Yikes. I’m glad I didn’t get cast in this.” or to be even less humble about it, I’m thinking, “Huh. Would I have been this bad?” But most of the time I’m hopeful until the very end. I’m one of those people who can not turn off a bad TV movie until the very last second. Even if I HATE it. And I’ve never left a play until curtain call either because I honestly have hope until it’s really over that there’s still time for it to magically come together. Even though it almost never does.

While I’m a terrible liar, I’m also a known “nice girl” but it’s not usually that hard for me to find something that I enjoyed from a performance. Usually, after I show, I’ll say something like, “wow that was something! I don’t know if it’s the script for me but I liked _______” and then fill in the blank. If I’m there supporting my actor friend, I’ll find a moment of their performance that I liked and focus on that. So if I’m in the middle of a terrible show, I purposely try to seek out those moments of good so that I can use them as discussion points later.

When you’re the one performing in a show.

Yeah, been there, done that, will inevitably do it again. As much as I’d like to have tougher skin, I’m still sensitive and super vulnerable after any performance. And when I know I have friends in the audience, I’m even more aware of it. It does break my heart when I know I have a pal attending the show and then that person conveniently disappears immediately after curtain call and I don’t hear from them. That cold silence sometimes feels quite cruel. While I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or force them to say harsher words for the sake of being honest, sometimes you just want your friends to quietly hug you and simply appreciate your attempt, your work; regardless of how they felt about the show.


Ever skipped the hellos?

I’m sure I have! Sometimes I have to catch a bus! But if I do leave, I try to reach out to my friend in the show and leave them with some kind thought. This year though, I challenged myself to stay around after a show to say those kind thoughts in person. Considering I don’t get a ton of social nights out anymore, I also relish these hellos because often it’s a chance to talk to a friend I haven’t seen for awhile.

As an actor, I have stayed in the dressing long a little too long after a show because I’ve been scared of facing certain audience members, assuming they hated it and not feeling brave enough to meet their eyes. I’d like to keep working on that.

Do you have a go-to line that you rely on?

I don’t. And I kind of encourage you not to because each performance is a different, unique thing. My advice is this, if you’re in the audience, allow yourself to have an honest opinion but give the show a chance. Try, try, try, to find something good. Even if it’s teeny tiny. I get it, sometimes shows are trash! But as a member of a small creative community, it’s a nice thing to try.

What do you guys think? How do you handle “terrible” shows? Do you think San Francisco fosters a different post-show environment than Chicago? As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

7 comments on “Cowan Palace: Yeah, What DO You Say To An Actor Who Just Bombed On Stage?

  1. I really like your thoughts here! One of the reasons I started writing for the stage is to get reactions to my writing that I could see and hear and feel. When I see a friend’s show I always try to come up with specifics to comment on, even if I loved it!

    • ashcows says:

      I think that’s so true! The compliments that always touch me the most are the ones that are detailed and specific because they somehow feel more genuine, and who doesn’t love that? 😉 Do you think your feelings change when you’re performing work that you’ve written vs other writing? I’d imagine I’d be even more vulnerable than ever but would love to work on one day trying it out!

  2. Seeing a bad show, I no longer have any qualms about bailing during intermission. If there’s a friend in the cast, I’ll let them know later that it wasn’t personal. I’ve sent MANY a text saying “Don’t worry, it wasn’t you – it’s just a shitty production”. Although I’ve also sent out a few “Whoever put this together does NOT know how to make the best of your skills”.

    I’ve also knowingly been in shitty shows and made a mad-dash for the exit after the curtain; I don’t bring it up with friends unless they do first. Hell, I’m the type to sit with friends over drinks and say “I’m so sorry you had to see that piece of shit.”

    Anyway, I’m for being honest. That doesn’t mean being a self-righteous asshole who thinks it’s his/her job to tell everyone their shows/performances are terrible, but that IF the topic is broached, you be empathetic about why it didn’t connect with you. It’ll save you headaches later on because both you and your friend(s) will know to think “This isn’t the kind of show [X] would like” before sending invitations.

    • ashcows says:

      I think that’s a great thing to do (reaching out to a friend and being honest but doing it in a kind, thoughtful way). Do you think your tolerance for “bad shows” has changed over the years? I’m just curious! 🙂 And I’m with you – no need for self-righteous asshole behavior, if you ask me.

      • Oh yeah, my tolerance has definitely changed: years ago I wouldn’t even think about walking out during intermission. Plus, every year (I hope) I get a li’l wiser and can better articulate what I do or don’t like.

        I never go into any play/film/what-have-you WANTING it to be bad – why would anyone want that? I just know when it hasn’t pole-vaulted over my expectations.

  3. This: “While I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or force them to say harsher words for the sake of being honest, sometimes you just want your friends to quietly hug you and simply appreciate your attempt, your work; regardless of how they felt about the show.”

    • ashcows says:

      It’s true! It’s almost like that need I sometimes have for my parents (or someone) to just hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay when I’m upset. I hope to offer that to a friend anyway, even if I really didn’t like the show/project, to still make them feel appreciated and valued because that’s what I would want.

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