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Memorising lines…

OK found Pericles printing history in a document full of strange typos talking about a text with strange typos.

But that got me thinking about our Shakespeare process week and memorising lines and how do actors do it. I know for me there’s a slavish adherence to the exact words on the paper.

Followed by the doing it with text in hand, wherein the text in hand becomes a safety blanket. Finally there is that horrible moment of release of paper support and into full fledged vocalising the text from memory.

Once the initial fear is conquered and the text is fully in place and use, and all the extra little bits between text and performance have been played with, I wonder what all the fuss was about. Then a new piece of text has to be learned and poof! the fear returns. It’s a bizarre ritual and one that working actors know and deal with constantly.

Believe me some texts I’ve memorised were forgotten as soon as the director said, OK it’s a wrap. If not as soon as said and take 1 up to 20 was captured. As recently happened on a 2 minute continuous non-editable take with many bits of business, spitting farmer and spewing market woman and a very well behaved chicken.

At the Sh process week I asked other actors about this and they agreed about the weirdness of that moment as you pass from not knowing to knowing your lines.

After all we were watching one another do it. The feeling seems to be the same, the methods of memorising radically different. But is their any real fail-proof method that eliminates that fear of letting go of the paper?

And again your lines aren’t just delivered alone. The other actors on the stage need your lines to deliver their own. Depending on your fellow actor for the correct cue is vital to the whole show. Play can only move forward if you fully know your lines.

It can be done without fully knowing your lines, or approximately knowing them. For example a member of our comedy cover group (not a professional actor) always has his lines secreted about his person: a crib sheet of what follows what. Invariably it fails him as fool-proof method. But they are always there.

Of course it’s a fear I so understand. I’m not alone in hating to learn text. It’s great once you know it but that learning and letting go thing gets me every time. Sir Laurence Olivier always had a prompter in the wings when he was on. Marlon Brando used to have his text stuck all over the set.

The prompter has existed since Shakespeare’s time. Would we could know more about this most inscrutable and immutable person. It might put an end to that old canard of Elizabethan acting and the actors with their prodigious memories.

A running argument between Ben and myself is what I consider to be the impossibility of putting on a show like Lear or Cymbeline overnight or even within 3 days. Lines slotted in like the Players in Hamlet, no problem. But a whole new play? They had fines in place for coming drunk to rehearsals!

And yet this faith is defended. Patrick Tucker’s OSC made it clear that this is possible, but only to the level of amateur theatre at least in Mark Rylance’s eyes. And in this argument I’ll take the thesps word for a thousand.

Which is a non-sequitur, as Ben is an actor. Last night I did another gig with the CCG. Three of the four other players are amateur players and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. But professional actors have had the necessary training that allows them to work together in telling a story. Actors always need fellow players. Yet they’re in it for themselves.

An actor always lies. And if they’re good they are honest and truthful in the telling of those lies. The Puritan preachers weren’t wrong about the world in and around the theatre. Drugs, drinking and wild times are the way many actors work out the silly energy that arrives after a show. I re-stress, it cannot have been different for an Elizabethan actor. (No Betty Ford clinics then though).

And yet many of them were church going types as well. The Actors Church in London dates from the mid 17thC. The Actor’s Church at Covent Garden is one of those little enclaves in London City, where for a moment 21stC time stops and history comes rushing in.

Back to the future, Dan our director in the process runs a theatre group out of there. His normal working process was being, in this new for him too process, disturbed. Nine voices chiming in on the text and interpretation and meaning, trying to coax out ways of dealing with these words, stresses and pauses. Sorry I keep regurgitating impressions of this process but I guess that’s part of it.

On a side and end note I live in Amsterdam and daily I’m reminded of the history of Europe back to the 17thC when Dutchman and Englishman supped together in the Mermaid Tavern. The Humanist thinking of then lives still. We’ve had Spinoza since our Will, who had his Montaigne.

Sh’s plays reek of humanism. In the sense of we’re human and will collapse under the right kind of pressure, even if in the face of all certainty, we’ll win. Or think we will. Opposition is the key.

Today in class:
Scene- Virgin 17 year old girl about to give it up to her boyfriend she saw kissing another girl.

the exercise:
If he makes you smile, slap him.
Just do it. See what happens.

Instantly 2 actors start to work a scene that before was hackneyed and cliched. Presence arrives and a doorway to a final performance is opened. At least one hopes that’s the case. They might forget everything and jolly themselves off with their old bag o tricks.

Obviously an exercise like this only works in a rehearsal situation. And I’m not advocating Californification jaw punch or Jersey Shore bitch slap either. The actors agree to the level of abuse that’s happening to them, if they accept it all. Young actors are usually in good physical shape and can take a beating and literally throw themselves into their parts and the exercises leading up to that part.

That’s the other thing about theatre. It’s all fake. The poisoned, stabbed, eye-gouged actor undergoes the exact same ritual the next night, afternoon, whenever. What qualifies a person to speak of something is the having done it. These are my observations from repeatedly doing it. Ergo actors are liars and fakes. But that’s not a bad thing.

And some of them are really good looking and others are really charismatic, charming and coool. Most aren’t. They just do. They can be depended on to do it as necessary. Ride a horse. Of course. Fly a plane. Open hearts. I do it all for the part.

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