On Breaking Onstage

Breaking (or “going up”) – The act of “breaking character” when onstage, usually involving uncontrolled laughter.

I’m not a fan of breaking on stage. I hate it, actually. I hate doing it (yes, I’ve been guilty) and I really despise seeing actors do it. But it happens.

Audiences tend to like it, I think. I don’t. Theatre is so artificial, we work so hard to draw the audience in to the world of the play. Why in the world would we want to take them out of it?

But breaking is a reality. It happens. And it’s important to understand why. It happens for the same reason that a joke makes people laugh. Basically, the joke’s setup asks our brain to think in a certain way and the punchline surprises and delights us because it goes in a different direction from what we were thinking.

Q: Which day of the week do chickens hate most?
A: Fry-day!

Not the world’s greatest joke, but it’ll do for my point. During the setup we consider the days of the week and wonder why the heck a chicken would know or even care what day it is, but the punch surprises us.

Same with breaking onstage. I’m often asked when doing a comedy, “The show is hilarious. How do you keep it together? How do you not laugh?” The answer is easy – by the time the audience sees the show we’ve heard the joke 1000 times. There’s no surprise anymore.

What makes actors break is a deviation from the expected – another actor says the wrong line, a prop breaks, a wardrobe malfunction, etc.

We had a small incident the other day right near the end of the show. Brighton Beach Memoirs is a play about a depression-era extended family going through an extraordinary two weeks, facing enormous challenges. At the end of the play my character learns that the house is going to be even more crowded – six cousins have escaped from Poland and will be on their doorstep in a week.

They set sail for New York tomorrow. They’ll be here in a week!

This line always gets a laugh because it comes right at the end of the show, when all of the problems seem to have been resolved, when everyone is finally at peace. Then this headache appears.

I say it always gets a laugh, because it does. We always have to hold there for a laugh. But the other day the pattern was broken. Guess what happened?

We were playing a student matinee for a small house. They were a lovely audience but fairly quiet. They laughed where we usually got laughs, just not too loudly. They laughed at a Clarence Darrow reference, for cyring out loud. Everything was going along fine.

They set sail for New York tomorrow. They’ll be here in a week!

And…. nothing… not even crickets. So we’re holding for a laugh that didn’t come. The unexpected had arrived. And someone broke. I don’t think the audience was aware of what was happening. We’re 30 seconds from the end of the play at that point and the pace is picking up. But it wasn’t great. And it was a good reminder to avoid this kind of thing at all costs.

The way to avoid breaking is to constantly be in the moment. Never anticipate anything beyond what is happening right now. Be focused. Be present. Be generous with your scene partners. Easy to say, hard to do.

p.s. There’s a play called Shear Madness that made the rounds a few years back. It actually has a written-in scene where the actors pretend to break. The audience loved it. I did not.

About the author

Craig Mason


  • Audiences often respond positively because it reminds them that the performance actually is “live” and not canned.  Sometimes it brings a moment of real life into something that is carefully planned.  As theatre people, we know that can be very destructive to the intended responses at that moment, but there are times that it is a healthy response.  In the “old days” of live television, a few people—perhaps most notably Red Skelton—made those moments a kind of trademark.