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.
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.
(Photo: the battle at Corioli in Coriolanus at the American Shakespeare Center. Photo by Lindsey Walters.)
I'm incredibly busy with the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center. We're currently performing The Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, and The School for Scandal. We're one week into rehearsal for Emma Whipday's brand-new play: Shakespeare's Sister. And we're weeks away from beginning rehearsals for The Fair Maid of the Exchange.
You can see the latest photos here.
In the meantime, my buddy Josh and I shot a little video series for each of the titles. Here's the first one.
(I don't know how to embed Facebook videos into this thing...)
This is more for me than anything else. But here are a variety of quotes that struck me in a John Lahr's profile of Janet McTeer in The New Yorker.
She wants to be known for the parts she plays, not for who she is. As she told the Daily Telegraph in 1996, “When I take off my stage makeup and walk out of the door, my obligation to the audience is over.” To me, she said, “There’s a reason I live in the Maine woods, where nobody knows what I do for a living. I think you can be better if someone who’s coming to see you perform has no idea who you really are.”
“I was incredibly self-conscious about the way I looked.” The year she was fourteen, she grew seven inches and had to bandage her legs to ease the growing pains. “I was half an inch taller than the boy I liked. I remember I was doing my piano practice, and I started sobbing. My father couldn’t cope with it. He gave me a tot of whiskey and ginger until my mother came home.” But the moment was a kind of emotional watershed. “After that,” McTeer said, “I stood up tall, and I never slouched. It was a sort of act of defiance, really. And, when I went to college, I realized that my height was an incredible tool. I could really use my body in a way that I felt was theatrical: you can stoop, you can be big, you can be galumphing, you can be nineteen-thirties and elegant. You’re much more malleable.”
McTeer sees acting as a form of jazz—a performance in which each player makes new music from a familiar tune. “I want to see live theatre,” she told me. “I want to not quite know where it’s going—so, when you see performers, you feel like they’re inventing it as they go along, rather than doing something that’s polished.” Once, she sat in the audience at what she describes as a “controlled, grownup, well-presented play.” Afterward, a man in front of her turned to his companion and said, “Wasn’t that marvellous! Gin and tonic?” she recalled. “I thought, I never want to be in that play, to do something easy that doesn’t challenge you. The idea of being in something competent—well, watch television.”
Coleman [McTeer's husband, on the night he first saw her] wrote in his journal, “She slips through air like a harbor seal in an icy green sea.”
In “The Dressing Room,” a poem about this first encounter with the inner workings of McTeer’s craft, Coleman bears witness to her shape-shifting from ordinary citizen to extraordinary performer:
She throws her head
back and guzzles a Diet Coke, turns up the
volume on her stereo and curses, howls
sways her weight from one foot to the other
the room getting smaller and smaller
and the air suffocating
“Janet feels a connection between fearlessness and great work,” Rourke said. “In the rehearsal room, in performance, she drives herself to the edge of what frightens her, and jumps off.” Working at that level of intensity requires reserves of energy, especially in a play like “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which places enormous demands on the actors’ verbal dexterity and mental focus; sometimes McTeer pushes herself too far. “I hate being tired for shows,” she told me. “I’m not one of life’s great sleepers. I work quite hard at sleeping.” She believes, she added, that “you have to be fitter than the play you’re doing.”
McTeer follows a vigilant regimen. For a very physical show, like “The Taming of the Shrew,” she spends the afternoon before an evening performance at home. At three o’clock, she has a salad and perhaps does some reading. At four o’clock, using “my Paul McKenna hypnosis tape,” she said, she naps for half an hour, then for another half hour lifts weights and takes a hard spin on an exercise bike. After a shower, “I’d hum, get my voice started warming up, and I’d bike to work,” she said. While playing Petruchio, she never looked in the mirror, but for Merteuil, she said, she’d “maybe put on a face mask, check my nails, because I want her to have nice nails, nice moisturizer.” She explained, “You’re as vain as your character.” She also always listens to music before a show: baroque for Merteuil; for Petruchio, “anything loud.”
McTeer’s characters may change and her routine may vary, but one part of her ritual stays the same. Before every performance, especially when she’s tired, on matinée days, “just for a second,” she peeks out at the audience, “to see people’s eyes.” She tells herself, “That person wants to be moved, that person wants to be excited, that person is here to see a bit of magic. All right, I can do this.”
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