Corpse. Noun and verb. Verb theatrical. Slang. 1 intr. Spoil a piece of acting by forgetting one's lines, laughing etc. 2 tr. Confuse (an actor) in the performance of his or her part. b. spoil (a piece of acting) by some blunder. Definition from the CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY.
I can be a bit of a giggler and it seems the more serious the acting piece is the greater the compulsion to laugh in inappropriate places becomes. My issue is not necessarily the nature of the piece but the person I am acting opposite. It boils down to the way a word is said, a particular look in the face of the other actor during a scene or sometimes just the position of the body. I can honestly say I have never ruined a play or a scene by laughing or giggling, but there have been some close calls.
The habit can develop during rehearsals when you discover the 'funny' thing by accident or design and you collapse with laughter and then try to regain the equilibrium. Looking at the other actor between the eyes, not in the eyes, but between the eyes and above the bridge of the nose can help. But once you start down the route of self reprimanding “Stop it! Now just stop it!” the chuckle muscles have another reason to flex themselves again and again. I have seen actors smack themselves around the face to cure this disease. That makes me laugh even more. Occasionally we have had to move to a completely different scene to regain normality.
Turning your body and face away from the audience can help you focus on the seriousness of the matter, but they will often see the shoulders going up and down.
There are theatrical stories of some cruel actors (often bored on long runs) who play tricks on their fellow actors by various means to see if they can make them laugh i.e. placing objects in places they shouldn't be or writing funny notes for the actors and putting them in a 'serious' stage letter and waiting for the actor to crack up. In the industry there are several very established actors such as Judy Dench and Patrick Stewart who are inveterate gigglers.
I have a had few memorable times on stage and in rehearsals when I have had to contain my laughter and really work very hard at getting through a particular scene without corpsing. The ones that stand out are working with a lovely actor called Piotr for the first time in a musical play called Poppy. I was playing Tao Kuan – Emperor of China and Piotr was Lin Tse Tsii – Commissioner to China. There was a particular scene where Piotr (wonderfully expressive face) was spouting some serious verse and he just looked so comical. I could hardly stop myself from laughing each night and was mightily relieved to escape from the scene and into the safety of the wings without breaking into gales of laughter. In fact the Poppy play was so full of silly situations and silly names that I'm surprised that more of us didn't giggle more on stage.
I have often had similar situations acting with my friend, Alison Hope and in the play, Abigail's Party we played tetchy husband and wife. In one part of the play her character was supposed to come on stage out of breath and giggling. To achieve this realistically she asked me to tickle her each night as we waited in the wings and then she would explode on to the set as Beverley in tucks.
In the 1980s I went to Derby Playhouse to see a professional production of a Joe Orton play where there was a live actor playing the part of a corpse. Must of the time he was hidden from view behind a piece of furniture or a screen. On the night I went I saw this 'corpse' subtly scratch their left leg. I nearly died laughing.
"Look here Mrs Elvsted, at this document." "I'm not looking! You've written a rude word."