Most know what the peanut gallery in a theatre is. It's the seats farthest from the stage, often in a balcony. But there is sort of an alternate peanut gallery for some performances. It consists of the actors that find themselves silently in the background of really crowded scenes.
I touched on this in brief fashion during some of my entries during "Anything Goes". As the Purser, I would often have little or nothing to say during a longish scene, and for more than one of them, I spent much of my time far upstage behind everyone else.
Did that mean I broke character, or checked out? Of course not. But at the same time, I confess to not being as in character during such times as I was at others.
Before you all pass out from shock and awe, let me explain.
Do you remember when you were a little kid, and you would go to some function with your parents? I bet many of you were told something along the lines of...
"Whatever you do, do NOT stare at Aunt Gina's mole."
Naturally, the mole was all you could think about whenever Gina was around. And you looked at it as often as you could. It's human nature. If we try too hard to do something (or not do something) we often find we are fighting ourselves to obtain that very result The same can be said for the longer periods of "background" acting.
I could have said to myself during those scenes in Anything Goes that no matter what, come hell or high water, I am going to be intensely in character, and NOT acknowledge at all the fact that I have been standing here for ten minutes, seen by almost no one, simply waiting for the scene to get over with. I could have ignored my fatigue and boredom with every fiber in my being. I could have given over every cell in my body to the proposition of "hearing" and "internalizing" every single word spoken by the lead actors, and process them as a "dude in the background would in real life."
Or, I could have been good.
I chose to be good. In so choosing, I knew that to be that pretentious during long silences for my character would only increase my fatigue, encourage my mind to wonder, and in the end actually take me out of the scene. Standing on stage with a sign that read "Hey folks, I'm a fake!" would have had the same result.
So, I maintained character on the outside. His stance, his facial expressions. His aura. (One reason I love creating physical gestures for each of my characters.) But when I whispered to the actress standing next to me for said long periods, the topics would be anything from the stage lighting, to who was going out to eat after the show, to the gentleman asleep in the front row of the audience.
Knowing I had no cue line to pay attention to for that scene, and scenes like it, allowed me to be less rigid with myself. By secretly "socializing" with a fellow performer, I kept myself relaxed while on stage, which is always crucial. The overall effect was to combat boredom, present an outward representation of character that the 3 people who ever bothered to look at me could appreciate, and to be free of visible strain.
I know that there are some god like theatre figures out there who would argue with me, and would have the discipline to not let their real life slip in even for a moment. Bravo to them. But I have a sneaking suspicion that even professionals do it sometimes.
I mean come on...do you really think that all 200 non-speaking background people in a Wagner Opera avoid talking whispering about the latest theatre gossip when they have an uneventful hour or two to kill while on stage? I don't.