Friday, February 09, 2007

Lines

Blogging has been light because I’m busy working and rehearsing. Agatha Christie’s Witness For the Prosecution is one of the hardest things I have ever memorized. It’s much harder to memorize than Shakespeare. Take these lines from Macbeth, for example:

What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
These lines have two big, unusual words, multitudinous and incarnadine, but that actually makes them easy to memorize. It’s the little prepositions and common words that are harder to get right, especially when you have many lines that are similar.

I “went up” in rehearsal last night. “Going up” is when you’re onstage and it’s your turn to talk and you have no idea what you’re supposed to say. I have an excellent memory and I work hard on my lines, so this is the first time it’s happened to me this late in rehearsal (we’re opening next week). It is a horrible experience, to be avoided at all costs. What comes out of an actor’s mouth when he forgets his line can make for much hilarity -- backstage; but onstage, it ain’t funny.

When I went up, I wandered over to my desk, muttering a few banalities, then remembered the next general topic of questioning (I play the prosecutor) and jumped to it. It worked. If you don’t break character and keep the thing moving, the audience is usually unaware of any mistake.

I read a book on acting that said memorizing lines gets harder as the actor ages. The older you get, the more work you have to put into it. In my experience, it’s the younger actors, especially the high school students, who are the worst at memorizing lines because they don’t understand how much work needs to go into it. Like students, they put it off until the deadline and then they cram. You have to put in hours of work for days, even weeks; you can’t put it off until the day before lines are due.

I also read that sleep helps the memorization process. Somehow sleep cements memorized words in the subconscious mind. If this is true, then it is even more important to work on lines every day in order to get the benefit of that night’s sleep period.

Late in his life Lawrence Olivier said something to the effect that when he looks back at all the parts he played he wonders how he memorized all those lines. Hey, if it was an issue to Lord Olivier, that makes me feel better.

I suspect that some stage careers have been cut short simply because the terror of going up is too much to bear. I imagine it is particularly bad for screen actors, who are used to having little dialogue to memorize on any given day of shooting.

A teacher of mine maintained that an actor can’t even begin working on his part until his lines are memorized. That might be an overstatement, but I see the point my teacher was getting at. I was in a play once with a guy who simply could not get his lines. (He also came to rehearsal smelling of alcohol, which might have been part of the problem.) Finally, at dress rehearsal he got through the play with all his lines. He was so proud of himself. I thought, “Dude, you have your lines, but that’s all you have.” During performance he just stood onstage and recited his lines with little acting beyond that.

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Local theatre companies are doing the following plays this year:

Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer-Night’s Dream
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Taming of the Shrew
Cyrano de Bergerac


That’s a lot of great plays. If I do them all, it will keep me busy through September. Of those plays the parts I would like the most are Falstaff (Merry Wives) and Baptista (Shrew). Falstaff is a fat guy trying to get laid; I believe I can bring something to this part. I would like to play Baptista with a nervous tic, as if being Katherine’s father has frazzled his nerves. I think there’s a fat cook in Cyrano that I would probably get.

In King Lear I think Gloucester is the part I’m most suited for. I’d get to have my eyes gouged out onstage, and wouldn’t that be fun? I’m actually not real excited about King Lear, because it reads better than it performs. I’ve never seen a good production of it. It’s so brutal and nihilistic that a rewritten version with a happy ending held the English stage during the enlightenment for something like 150 years.

Merry Wives of Windsor is interesting because critics and scholars loathe the play, but theatre companies love it. (Harold Bloom dismisses this Falstaff as not the "real" Falstaff of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2.) It is sure-fire theatre. It is the opposite of King Lear in that it works onstage better than it reads. For instance, at the end, when Falstaff realizes he has been duped, he says:
I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.

Now, just reading that in your armchair, the line is not funny. But I saw a performance once in which the actor paused, then said it absolutely deadpan to the audience and it brought down the house. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen in the theatre. The actor's delivery revealed that the formality of the words "I do begin to perceive" contrasts hilariously with "that I am made an ass." You really have to see a play to get a full understanding of its worth.

Yes, a lot of great plays -- and a lot of lines to memorize.

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