The question folks love to ask actors. It’s inevitable in a talkback--often the first one asked.
While you may not actively see a row of actors roll their eyes at it, we’ve been known to grumble about it in the dressing room afterwards.
I’m not trying to police audience behavior. It’s a valid question. I expect many audience members have horror stories of having to do some light memorization or public speaking from their school days.
The potential eye rolling is likely due to A) It’s asked all the time and B) our answers are usually BORING. When it comes to itemizing the unglamorous life of an actor, line memorization is at the top. I think we’d rather discuss characters, themes, and moments.
Rest assured, I don’t roll my eyes at this question. (I may at “Are you going to be on Broadway?” but that’s another post.) I wish I had a fun late-night-talk-show answer. It’s hard to answer it in a short, satisfying manner suitable for a talkback. Because the heart of the answer is closer to: “How do you act?” or “How do you prepare for a role?” Those are huge questions. I’ve been a professional actor for 10 years. I have a terminal degree in it. It’s hard to distill my process. And I suspect some actors find sharing the process not worth an audience’s time, or that it’s intensely personal and would take away the magic of the theatre. I love process. I soak it up. I’m a glutton for interviews and talkbacks and behind-the-scenes stuff.
So I offer the following as the long version of a talkback answer I wish I could share.
HOW I MEMORIZE MY LINES
I need to speak my lines and repeat them over and over again.
For the past four years or so, I’ve made flashcards of all my lines. On the front, my cue is written, and on the back, my lines are there. It’s a great way to test myself. It’s also great to have written down my lines and to learn them in my own handwriting. I’m sure there are fascinating neurological bits at play with this process. But I won’t get into those because that’s not my realm of expertise.
I also need to be on my feet. I will often walk around in neighborhoods and parks, overtly holding my notecards. One time I was memorizing lines on a nice trail system when a passerby said: “good luck on your test.” I smiled and said thank you, careful not to shatter the illusion. Thank goodness they didn’t hear me say: “There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust.”
WHAT I DO BEFORE (AND DURING) MEMORIZING LINES
It doesn’t HAVE to be grunt work. And often, it isn’t.
Just look at that last line again: “There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust.”
If you just read that, isn’t the line wonderful? I mean, it’s macabre, but wonderfully so!
Read it aloud a couple times.
There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust.
There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust.
“Crumble up to dust” is so vivid. “Bowels” is equally funny and disgusting to me. And it’s the second great “B word” in the line (“bosom” being the first).
Even if you don’t know what’s going on, why John is saying what he’s saying, I venture that this line is marvelous. Just on its own. It took me no time at all to memorize. I didn’t have to drill this line over and over.
This is one of many lines that I inherently love in King John. And this happens to us all the time! I’d venture there’s a song or two, dear reader, that you know all of the words to. Or you can quote The Lion King or Monty Python and the Holy Grail because it hooked you at a young age, and you’ve seen it many times. You don’t have to work at it. A few days after Black Panther was released in movie theaters, a video was shared of a little boy acting out some pivotal dialogue from the movie. He had only seen it twice (if I recall correctly). This boy couldn’t have been more than five. He was quoting important scenes from the movie, verbatim. It took no work at all. And it was magical. There’s a meeting of some brilliant writers meeting eager fans at work here. And, thankfully, that often works for me when I’m memorizing. But this is not 24/7 ecstasy work.
The tricky thing is I have 360 lines of Shakespeare in King John alone (1 line equals 1 line of verse: iambic pentameter). Billy Shakes wrote some great lines, but they’re not all created equal. So there are certain things I need to do before I do the grunt work of learning all of those lines by rote.
This is where the “what do you do to prepare?” question comes into play. Here are things I do before and during memorizing:
ENGAGING WITH THE TEXT
Some actors don’t like to have their lines memorized before rehearsals start. They don’t like to be set in their ways before meeting the other actors (and no one’s getting paid for working before a contract begins--which is usually day one of rehearsal). I understand that. But for me, it’s more agonizing to act with a script in my hand. That ends up being my scene partner, and it’s such a crutch. I don’t determine how I’ll exactly say a line before it’s memorized. On the other hand, I don’t learn the lines completely neutrally either. It’s nearly impossible when I do all this work. It’s about being prepped enough to bring something to the table, but available enough to be flexible. I can’t do this on my own.
In April, I wrapped up a thrilling Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center (my third). It was a remarkable set of plays with some incredibly generous, tenacious artists.
Of our production of Hamlet, Eric Minton (Shakespeareances.com) writes this:
"You wonder if theater—any theater—can get better than this. Pause. Breathe. Reiterate....I'm not only still pondering this production's place in all my life's Shakespeareances, I'm still feeling the vibrations in my cheeks, the tingles in my gut, the intensified thumping in my heart, and my stinging palms." (Read the whole review here.)
After that, I've had some time to unwind, visit friends, see the Badlands and the Black Hills in western South Dakota.
I'm also deep in an exciting play adaptation project. Perhaps I'll share more later. I've been toying with the idea ever since I've heard about the work of Kate Hamill and other actor/playwright. In the past years, I've been reading/watching interviews and adaptations. I've collected something of a file, and now it's time to do something about it.
Soon, I'll be packing again and taking root in Kilgore, TX for my debut at Texas Shakespeare Festival. There, I'll be playing Boyet in Love's Labour's Lost, Cleante in Tartuffe, and King John in King John!
Here's a running list of the books (and plays) I've read cover-to-cover:
I look forward to reading updates by Regina De Vera. She occasionally blogs about her "Julliard Journey." And this is from the latest reflection:
During my late teens and early twenties, I had bought into the notion that a "leading lady" or an "ingenue" was a soprano. I might have unconsciously forced myself into being a soprano because I wanted to be a "leading lady." Much of my Juilliard journey (which includes my casting and my work in scene study classes) have challenged all these ideas of "leading lady," "ingenue," "character actress" and so on. "All acting is character acting," one of my acting teachers said. I am very happy to have begun letting go of this hold to become of a particular mold and embrace my voice and my self and my soul as IS. I love that I am an alto. I love that I can sing deep notes. And I love that I can sing high notes, nevertheless. Having range is good.
Type is something actors obsess about. I have mixed feelings about it. And I won't go into all of that right now. But I love the "All acting is character acting."
My lines are finally memorized for The Way of the World! This has been a long, tedious process. But I memorized the final bits this morning. This stack of cards has all my cues and lines for the show. It's great for quizzing myself. Come see this and the other shows for the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center.
A week or two ago, some of us had a photo shoot with Michael Bailey for marketing with the upcoming 2018 Actors' Renaissance Season. I felt a little bit like a guest host for SNL--it was a lot of fun. I can't wait for you to see the others popping up around Staunton and online.
The Actors' Renaissance Season is a troupe of 12 actors putting together five plays in rotating repertory. We don't have formal directors (though there are instances where a couple actors play a kind of Peter Quince/actor-manager role). We get to costume the plays ourselves! Sometimes all we receive are cue-scripts (instead of having the whole play in our hands, all I have are my lines and the few words that cue those lines).
This will be my third time performing in the Ren Season, and I'm thrilled.
Here's the list of plays and my roles:
Hamlet - Polonius and Fortinbras
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead - Polonius and Fortinbras
The Way of the World - Mirabell
Richard II - Northumberland
Antonio's Revenge - Alberto
Stay tuned for more updates.
In the meantime, here's a peek at my cue script for Hamlet. It's just the lines I speak with the few words that precede each line.
Ali Smith's Autumn is the first of four seasons novels. I understand they are independent novels, but I'm sure they will talk to each other in fascinating ways. Critics have considered it the first major post-Brexit novel. While it does cover some of that territory, it's much more than that. The dread about the results of "The Vote" can be directly applied to America. It's immediate and expansive. No wonder it's shortlisted for the Booker.
This is a book that has an extremely dense thread count. It's not linear. It read like a long prose poem. I don't know that I've read too many novels that are this "experimental." But Smith is being careful as much as she's being playful. Nothing feels capricious (except when it's inentional). The quotes I've copied below are fairly bleak, but I promise you, there is a pervasive "stop and smell the roses"/"rise above the muck" element that I adored. The autumn here is often hot and humid. Leaves are falling. Winter is coming, but there are wondrous bursts of color and life. Much like the autumn I'm experiencing right now.
The primary story involves the close friendship between Elisabeth, a young art professor and her old, dying neighbor Daniel. There are imagined conversations, dreams, flashbacks, and cringe-funny passport renewal scenes at the post office. We also get to see Elisabeth working on her dissertation on Britain's pop artist Pauline Boty.
I was able to finish this in a couple days. I've never read Smith, but I'm keen to try others.
The opening sentences:
"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old man washes up on the shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago."
(Elisabeth frequently reads to Daniel. One of the books is A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.)
And it continues with lines like these:
"Can you be hungry and dead? Course you can, all those hungry ghosts eating people's hearts and minds."
"Someone killed an MP, she tells Daniel's back as she struggles to keep up. A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn't be enough. But it's old news now. Once it would have been a year's worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff."
"Anonymous people start to add tweet-sized comments about Daniel beneath Daniel. They are commenting on his ability to change things. The comments get more and more unpleasant. They start to make a sound like a hornet mass and Elisabeth notices what looks like liquid excrement is spreading very close to her bare feet. She tries not to step in any of it."
"The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks."
"He had a voice off old films where things happen to well-dressed warplane pilots in black and white."
A list of books read in 2017
(finished titles only--many, many more have been abandoned for a number of reasons)
An on-going list of the movies I've watched in 2017
We opened Love's Labour's Lost last week.
Here's an interview with Matt Davies, the director for that play.
"Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up. Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery."
And here's an interview with Jenny Bennett, who directed Much Ado about Nothing.
"Another thing that I love about this play is the notion that since we’re all invented out of nothing, we can reinvent ourselves out of nothing, too. Several people in this play are confronted with a rebuke of who they are, or how they’ve been behaving – they overhear people talking about them or are directly told they’ve made a terrible error. The real mettle of a person is revealed by what they choose to do with that information. Grace is available to those who take action to repair what’s broken, to be available to Love, to be ‘good men, and true.’ Along these lines, I’m quite fond of our 5.3 Tomb scene. Chris Johnston, Music Director, wrote the most beautiful song. I won’t spoil it here, but I hope you love it as much as I do."
These are two smart folks with lovely things to say about these Shakespeare comedies.
Both plays are running in rep with Peter and the Starcatcher at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.
Books Read 2018
Books Read 2017
Books Read 2016
Books Read 2015
Movies Watched 2017
Movies Watched 2016
Movies Watched 2015