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June 28, 2010

The Fine Art of “Corpsing” – Oliver Dennis

Oliver Dennis has been with Soulpepper for 11 seasons, and stars as Phil in Jitters, on stage now.

Oliver Dennis

Oliver Dennis in rehearsal for Jitters. Photo: Sian Richards.

I’ve just recently found out from whence the word “corpsing” comes. Corpsing is what actors call being out of character and laughing on stage. All these years doing it and I never questioned the origin of the word. I don’t know the details: The whos, the whys, the whens and the wheres (if you know perhaps you could comment on this post). Noah says Laurence Olivier was involved. In any case – and perhaps it’s obvious if you think about it – it came from an actor playing a dead person on stage who began giggling and jiggling in full view of the audience.

Corpsing is considered very unprofessional and I have to admit to being prone to it. I’m not sure whether I lack the concentration, as an actor, to stay focused on the character/action/play, or whether the joy I feel at what I do bubbles over too much, or maybe a combination of both (there also could be other psychological origins that I’d rather not delve into). I do know that I need to be on that razors edge to be inventive: If I can make myself and the rest of the room laugh, I must be onto something.

During rehearsals for A Chorus of Disapproval (2002), Albert had me do a sort of high stepping, walking, strutting action while speaking in a play within a play, with a British North Country accent that sounded slightly Texan (according to Albert). This tickled me so much I never made it through rehearsing the scene without corpsing. It was so bad Albert had to direct me to “corpse” in an earlier scene so the latter scene wouldn’t appear to be the actor corpsing, but rather the character corpsing.

Corpsing tends to happen most with happy shows. Shows where people enjoy each others company, where jokes are traded and stories told. I’m corpsing a lot in this show and I’m not the only one.