How 5 Pros Recovered From Their Biggest Onstage Fails
Written by: Haley Hilton / Sep 27, 2021

As live theater returns, we're reminded again that anything can happen onstage. Be it falling, puking or losing your costume mid-performance, mishaps are a reality of the industry. It's what you do with the disaster that matters. Five professionals with major onstage fail stories shared their best practices for picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and getting over the trauma.

Joshua Grant, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Joshua Grant with Laura Tisserand in Agon

What happened: "I had just joined Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and was doing Raymonda on tour in Japan. We were in Kyoto at a theater that's really wide, but really shallow. You look to the side and everything seems so far away, but you turn around and the backdrop is right in your face.

"My partner was named Yonny, but we called him Mamma because he was 50 at the time. I was wearing steel blue pants, a mustard yellow tunic from 1985 that was falling apart, with a mustard yellow cap that had fur around it and a pink feather sticking out of the tip. It's one of the most ridiculous costumes ever. We come out for the finale doing chugging emboîtés. The whole time you're doing them you're shaking your head so the feather goes back and forth. While I'm living doing my steps, it suddenly feels like someone hit me with a broom, and I completely somersault over the footlights with my legs up in the air. I can hear the lights crunching and crackling under my back and full-on black out for a second.

"Then I see Mamma come over to me, look down and say, 'It's alright, darling, Mamma's got you.' He leans over to pull me up, with his butt to the audience. Right at this moment the soloists and principals exit, and a spotlight is right on us. It was perfect timing."

The recovery: "If you dwell on it, you will continue to remind the audience what happened and nobody will remember the rest of the show. So, I got up, I straightened my hat, and I went back into my pose."

Kate Harpootlian, Shaping Sound

Kate Harpootlian in Travis Wall's After the Curtain

What happened: "At Shaping Sound, we had an incident known as 'Lipstick-gate.' One of the dancers who uses a prop lipstick unknowingly severed the top of the lipstick off the tube and onto the stage. I thoroughly mopped it up with my butt during a floor section. I finished the number looking as though I had gotten my period."

The recovery: "The costume mistress threw an extra pair of bloomers over the mess during my two minutes offstage. Even still, it was on my shoes, the fringe, every­where. I thought, Of course this is happening to me, and then I laughed about it and carried on. We have this vision of perfect shows, but what we should be striving for is the ability to come back from the imperfections."

Emily Adams, Ballet West

Emily Adams and four other women in light blue leotards and matching long tulle skirts link together, each extending one arm on the diagonal on different levels
Emily Adams (top center) in Serenade

What happened: "While I was in the corps, I fell during a performance of Serenade and thought I'd ruined the show. During the first diagonal peel-off, I turned the corner and slipped on my box. My whole body splashed on the floor. I'm shocked that I didn't take anyone down with me. I remember hitting the ground so hard and not knowing where I was—I was just staring at the floor. And then I realized I was onstage and frantically tried to get up. My feet kept slipping on my long, tulle skirt, so I couldn't really get a grip. I probably missed five or six counts, but time slowed down and it felt like eternity. I stood up just in time to do my failli offstage. After the show, the ballet master came to ask if I was alright and was like, 'I thought you were gonna have to crawl offstage!'

"A couple years later there were some new dancers who told us they saw Serenade, and it was a show where someone completely fell down. It was that obvious! My sister was in the corps the next time we did Serenade in 2017, and they used the footage of me falling to reset it. They watched it over and over again."

The recovery: "Every time you make a mistake onstage, even if it's just a human moment, it's hard not to think, Oh my gosh, am I going to get fired? But you can't fixate on a mishap, or you won't be giving the audience everything you have. When an embarrassing mistake happens, I channel that frustration into a sort of determination, to not let it define my performance or get the best of me. I usually apologize to the ballet master or our artistic director Adam Sklute if it was something I could have prevented. Taking responsibility helps me move on. Then, I go home and obsess about it. My personality needs to take a night to think it through."

Joshua Blake Carter, Giordano Dance Chicago

Joshua Blake Carter Gorman Cook Photography, Courtesy Carter

What happened: "We were performing Ray Leeper's Feelin' Good Sweet. The men had quite a few costume changes, including adding black suit jackets. From time to time the sweat caused some delay in getting the jackets on. During this performance, I went to slide my arms into the jacket, the lining ripped, and my hand slid into the space between the jacket and the lining. I removed the coat and tried again. No success. With seconds to spare I decided that it would appear like more of a mistake if I went on without a coat, so, instead, I went on without a hand.

"Once I'd entered the stage I only left again twice. Each time the crew was next to me with scissors trying to cut the lining at the bottom of the coat to get my hand through. Finally, I exited the stage for mere seconds before reentering for the final moment, and someone cut a quick hole and ripped open the lining. I successfully used two hands to end the work. Talk about the longest three minutes in a performance, ever!"

The recovery: "When something like this happens onstage, you go into survival mode. It's like you're in a horror movie and someone is chasing you with a knife—you don't just stand there, you keep running. While I was dancing I wasn't thinking about the fact that I didn't have a hand. I continued to open and close it inside the jacket even though nobody could see it.

"When something goes wrong, we have to remember we are there to create a full picture in ensemble work. Quickly solve the problem, without disrupting the group. It isn't about you."

Morgan Butler, Alabama Ballet

Morgan Butler in Swan Lake

What happened: "I was in college performing an original work with Utah Ballet. The first section was an adagio, and everything was going great. I was onstage for 10 minutes, then went offstage briefly. When I went to pull up my tights, I felt a breeze under my skirt. I lifted it up and gasped—I had forgotten to put my trunks on. For a split second I thought about going on without them, but then I realized the second movement included huge leaps.

"Everyone asked what was wrong, and without answering, I ran up three flights of stairs to the dressing room. I ripped my trunks off the hanger and ran back down the stairs, hobbling, trying to put them on. I made it back to the stage and jumped into the choreography, 16 counts late. My instructors thought I was hurt. I was so embarrassed to tell them I had just forgotten my trunks. I've heard from people in the department that it's gone down in history. They warn everyone not to forget their trunks before every show."

The recovery: "It was horrifying in the moment. I didn't know if I had flashed the whole audience and everyone knew. It ended up being funny later on.

"Whatever you do onstage, you have to do it with full confidence. Chances are, the audience won't pick up on the small things. That being said, take the extra time to double-check everything."