After all these years, I still have dreams about being onstage and forgetting my lines.

Or arriving at the theater on opening night and realizing I have been to no rehearsals, have no clue where I’m supposed to be in each scene or what I am to say.

I’m standing, mortified on center stage, looking out on a sea of faces and wondering what the heck I’m doing there.

I was reminded of that feeling as I watched the final stretch of the Academy Awards ceremony on TV Sunday, Feb. 26, when Warren Beatty apparently was handed the wrong envelope containing the name of Best Picture winner.

The poor “La La Land” director, cast and crew must have been similarly stunned to learn, after having been handed Oscar statues and given thank-you speeches, that they hadn’t won after all.

And what shock and joy for the “Moonlight” crew, who took over the stage as the “La La Land” people receded.

Welcome to show biz.

When I was a thespian many years ago in the drama department at Skowhegan Area High School, we learned that anything can happen onstage and it’s how we handle such situations that matters.

There’s always a way in, around or out of something, if we just use a little imagination, courage and creativity. Kind of like in real life.

We were taught about the importance of knowing how to ad lib, or fill in ours or someone else’s lines, if we forget them, with anything that might resemble the actual lines. We were taught that if we do it right, no one in the audience will know the difference.

It also was drilled into our heads, over and over, that no matter what happens, the show must go on.

In my senior year, I played Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” opposite my classmate, Marjory Russakoff, who played Helen Keller.

Annie tries to teach Helen, who is both blind and deaf, to make a connection between an item and a word — the word “water” and the actual water, for instance. Throughout the play, Annie hands Helen an item, such as a book, while Annie’s lips mouth the word “book,” and she has Helen touch Annie’s face at the same time to try to help her understand the connection.

In the final scene of the play, they use a hand pump to pour water into a pitcher as they perform their hand-mouth exercise, and Helen finally understands the connection, exclaiming aloud, “Wah wah.” It is a pivotal moment.

Well, in my scene with Marjory, the glass pitcher containing the water broke and shattered all over the stage floor, and Marjory crawled around on hands and knees, touching the water, exclaiming “wah wah,” and incurring little cuts all over her hands and knees which bled profusely. At curtain call, she did her best to hide her bloody hands.

When I worked at Lakewood Theatre in Madison in the 1970s, a professional Broadway cast from New York performed “The Sound of Music,” and one day, the actress who played the Mother Abbess fell through rotten timbers on the backstage steps and broke her leg. The show, however, had to go on.

It seemed sad but somehow humorous to see the Mother Abbess in a wheelchair onstage singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

Another time at Lakewood, the woman playing Laurey, the female lead in the musical “Oklahoma,” became very ill and was unable to perform. Having no understudy to take her place, the director enlisted the theater owner’s red-haired fiancée, who fit the physical description of the character, to fill in, spending an entire afternoon teaching her quick lines and blocking, dressing her up in costume and directing her to sing the songs as best she could. Having never acted before, she did an amazing job and the show went on without another hitch.

Many years ago when I acted with Park Street Players, a local Skowhegan troupe, and was a member of its board of directors, we performed the musical “Oliver,” and I played Mrs. Sowerberry, the funeral director’s wife. There was a scene in which I become hysterical and fall into a coffin. Over the coffin was a funeral home sign suspended by chains from the stage ceiling.

On closing night, as I fell into the coffin, one of the actors on stage inadvertently knocked the sign with his elbow and it swayed furiously, back and forth, as we did the scene. After the show, the director said he’d wished someone had reached up and grabbed that sign to stop it from swinging.

In high school I was prompter for “Oklahoma,” which means I stood in the wings with the script and if anyone onstage forgot a line, I’d shout it out. I had to follow each line in the script very closely as actors performed, and more than once I helped save them from embarrassment by feeding them lines. Our director encouraged me to shout those lines out to the actors at the top of my lungs, assuring me the audience wouldn’t notice, and generally, that proved to be true.

One last story: At Lakewood we had the privilege of hosting the actor and comedian Milton Berle. He was generous with his time and spent a long night and into early morning with a group of us, telling us stories about Vaudeville. Berle recounted one Vaudeville scene in which an actor was to fire a pistol, shooting another character onstage.

However, when he pulled the trigger, the handgun didn’t go off as planned. The character who played the victim fell to the stage floor anyway, and the shooter quickly saved the scene by declaring, “Great new invention, these silencers.”

Though I can’t immediately cite specific occasions where these sorts of theatrical lessons have served me well in real life situations, just having them in my tool box makes life a little less intimidating.

I don’t know that the “Moonlight” and “La La Land” casts and crews could have handled the kerfuffle at the Academy Awards any differently, and I’ll bet it was a deer-in-the-spotlight moment they never imagined they’d face. Talk about the element of surprise.

But in any event, it’s all entertainment — both the good and the bad — and that Oscar moment certainly didn’t disappoint. We’ll no doubt be talking about it for years to come.

And I, for one, am glad I stayed up to see it.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 29 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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