The (Not So) Gentle Art of Upstaging

Anyone who has been in the theatre as a performer is well-acquainted with the cardinal sin of upstaging:


: to take attention away from (someone or something else, such as another performer)

Full Definition of UPSTAGE

transitive verb

1 :  to draw attention away from <upstaging the competition>

An actor being upstaged by his sword

2 :  to force (an actor) to face away from the audience by staying upstage

You don’t have to stand upstage (toward the back of the stage, forcing the central character, who is supposed to have everyone’s attention, to turn toward you.  You can fiddle with something, whistle, wiggle – anything to make the audience watch you rather than him.
I have been in various theatre groups over the years, with some really electrifying parts – like the society lady of the 1890s with a drinking problem, whose final appearance involves her staggering from the house with a streamer of toilet paper stuck to her shoe, or the countess in The Sound of Music who uttered the deathless lines “Frau Schraeder is charming, Georg!”  I upstaged Captain Von Trapp in that scene by wearing underpants printed with red bicycles.  I did not know, then, that spotlights will cut through clothing and highlight things you would not think visible.  One of the stage hands asked me, after the scene, why on earth I had bicycles on my panties.
We were cautioned against upstaging each other, and given some examples of what it involved and why the one being upstaged was justified in throttling (usually in plays involving stealthy murder), stabbing (Shakespearean) or shooting (crime drama) the upstager.
The Great Tallu
Tallulah Bankhead was notorious for her upstaging antics.  Two stories illustrate them very well.
Tallulah Bankhead was getting nonsense from an upstart young actress who declared she could upstage Tallulah anytime. “Dahling,” said Miss Bankhead, “I can upstage you without even being onstage.
The next night, she set out to prove it.
While the upstart actress acted a long telephone conversation, Miss Bankhead made her exit – not before placing her champagne glass on the edge of the table, precariously balanced half-on, half-off.
The audience began to notice the dangling glass, and whisper in a hubbub. The actress was completely upstaged. And Miss Bankhead nowhere in sight.
Afterward, the secret was revealed: Miss Bankhead had put sticky tape on the bottom of the glass.
Tallulah always squabbled with her leading men.  One of them had his revenge.  She had arranged for a phone to ring on stage during his climactic speech.  He tried to ignore it, tried to cover it with a burst of speech.  He finally lifted it and managed a limp “Hello?”  And then he turned to Tallulah and offered the phone with a smile.  “It’s for you, Darling!”
I mentioned my experience with Les Miserables  in its first tour in 1988 in Philadelphia.  The actor who played the Inspector, Javert, was the original understudy for the part on Broadway.  He was handsome, had a wonderful presence, a good singing voice, and the body of a dancer  The audience loved him.  At one point in the play, he is spying on the students at the barricade and is unmasked by the little boy, Gavroche, who sings:

Good evening, dear Inspector,
Lovely evening, my dear!
I know this man, my friends –
His name’s Inspector Javert!
So don’t believe a word he says,
‘Cause none of it’s true!
This only goes to show what little people can do!

The students seize Javert while the student leader, who has the most superb breath control, gives instructions:
“Tie this man and take him to the tavern in there!
The People will decide your fate, Inspector Javert!”
And Javert, wearing a glisteningly white shirt with a tricolor sash about his waist in this production, had a fine, defiant speech that ended with the vehement wish that all traitors die.  And then, pinioned, he was hustled off the stage by two brawny extras.
We all liked Javert, and the actor, one Herndon Lackey, was doing a fine job and, aside from the part, was an enjoyable person to follow.  We wanted to know what happened to him, even those of us who had read Victor Hugo’s ‘brick’ in French or English.
Eponine bites the big one
The play continued.  The love-lorn waif and prostitute, Eponine, comes to the barricade and dies in Marius’ arms.   (Marius being the love interest.  For me, I wanted Javert) after singing a pathetic song.
Well, we saw that, but we also saw that Javert was being dragged up the side of the stage (‘stage right’, as you face the stage, meaning that it was to the left).  Mr. Lackey (Javert), being an experienced  actor and, apparently, a very loyal one, was resisting as much as he could.  The grimly determined insurgents, who were also rather oblivious, kept hauling him up toward the stage.  I suspect he hissed something because they suddenly all froze and stood motionless while Eponine died tragically in Marius’ arms.  She would have done better in Javert’s, at least in this production.  They stood like victims of Medusa, turned to stone, while she sang.  Once she was finished, they moved to the taproom and made Javert a prisoner.

Image (c) Crowanimation
The play wound on toward its close.  Javert killed himself, once he realized that duty required him to go after Valjean, while his heart told him that the man was too good to arrest. 
The last song was sung, the curtain calls and whistles were over, and I sat back, breathless.  It was a wonderful time.
What stayed with me, with that particular production, was the classic illustration of the gentle art of upstaging an opponent.  This time was not deliberate.  The actor did everything he was supposed to, short of yelling, “Yo, Bozos!”  (it was after all, in Philadelphia…) “Lay off!  She’s singing!”
The key is to be what you are, with no effort, with a completely straight face.  Don’t say (essentially) “A-HAH!” because you’ll be found out.

One comment on “The (Not So) Gentle Art of Upstaging

  1. Yvette Carol says:

    Very interesting post, Diana! I think the moral of the story probably would be it's best not to upstage anyone. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.