January 15, 2024

Keeping a Straight Face

In "Keeping a Straight Face," Theatretrain Artistic Director Kevin Dowsett shares hilarious mishaps, in-jokes, and the art of subtle humour on stage. From detaching wine glass bottoms to unexpected shirt slogans, discover the entertaining side of live performances.

There’s a long tradition among actors called corpsing – laughing when you shouldn’t. Sometimes things go wrong in a live performance and it can lead to unintentional hilarity. I remember performing in an Agatha Christie play where I had to pick up a glass of wine, have a sip or two and later place it down. For some reason, it was one of those picnic glasses with a detachable bottom. The inevitable happened and when I took a sip, I noticed I was holding only the glass and the stem. What to do? I don’t think anyone else in the cast knew but maybe the audience did. I fretted for a while wondering what to do, until I just laid it on its side on a table. The solution is not to pretend it hasn’t happened – it has. I performed in a play where the door kept swinging open so before the next performance the stage management packed the lock with extra wood. The result was that when I tried to enter, the door wouldn’t budge. It was completely stuck and somehow, I had to get on. My solution was to enter through the French windows which got a laugh and then another when I said “You seem to have a problem with that door.”

By tradition the final matinee of a play’s run can have moments of unexpected corpsing, in-jokes, and attempts to put you off your stride might come along. The worst I heard was in a modern dress production of Julius Caesar. The actor in question was a Roman citizen who had to be so persuaded by Mark Anthony that he roared his approval. This performance was in Newcastle and the actor had a plan. He came to his roar and he ripped open his shirt to reveal on his chest the words “Shop at Binns” a popular store at the time.

He was shown the door.

I suppose it keeps you awake on stage in a long run but it all seems a bit self-indulgent. If I’ve paid my money, I don’t want to see a bunch of actors having a good time at my expense. For that reason, I think subtle humour is cleverer. It doesn’t spoil the play for the audience but it keeps the actors engaged with each other.      


Theatretrain, a nationwide provider of weekend theatre schools for young people aged 4-18, specialises in weekly classes in acting, singing, and dancing. An emphasis is placed on learning valuable life skills such as confidence, empathy, courage, and resilience. If you know a child who loves to dance, act and sing or could do with a little confidence boost why not visit to find out what our performing arts classes can offer your child at one of our 80 locations across the UK.

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