On Learning Lines: The out of mind experience

I wonder if many people who watch plays realize how much of “the rehearsal process” is devoted to learning lines. As actors most of us are are gluttons: We want the juicy parts and that usually means the ones with many lines to learn.So we’re victims, as usual, of our own egos and have only ourselves to blame. I once hear that Michael Caine, when asked how he decided whether to accept a role, said he looked at the first and last page of the script. If his character spoke on those, he took the part.

Everyone has different methods. For a lucky few, learning lines comes easily. I had a co-lead in a show who had no idea of his many lines in the whole second act of the show in one rehearsal and came back the next night being damn near perfect. I can’t imagine how he did it. He even look well rested.

For others it’s everything from a long, arduous struggle to a complete nightmare.. In the process, of course, you think about your character. The lines inform you, they mold you, they make you who you are as a character in a play. But it always come back to knowing when you’ve got to say what and a bit of when and what you’re supposed to do.

The hope is always that you’ll get beyond this, that lines will become so well engrained that you’ll no longer have to think of them. There’s a famous quote by Glenda Jackson: “The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant.” A worthy goal, to be sure. Meanwhile, it’s time to run through one’s stack of 3×5 cards with cues on one side and your lines on the other and hope those memory engrams have begun to stick in your mind a little better than the last time you ran through the stack.

As an actor who tries to feel what the character is feeling to give the lines the right meaning and one who tries to avoid the trap of solidifying a particular “line reading” at the expense of spontaneity and responsiveness to one’s fellow actors, I hate to admit how much of my actual “emotion” on stage is stark, unadulterated fear of forgetting my lines. I’ve done it enough times to know that the lines will come, but also enough to know that things will, sometimes, go wrong.

But whether you’re murdering your lover in a violent rage or making a silly joke in a moment of frivolity, you’re also praying to god remember what you’re supposed to say or do next.

There’s more than one way to lose your mind while on stage.  Here are a few of my personal favorites:

The first is simply not spending enough time learning them. How much time is “enough time”? Well, that depends on the person learning the lines. That person knows how fast he or she learns and knows how many hours, days, weeks ahead opening night is. Sometimes there a flaw in the calculation. Sometimes one’s over-confident or under-committed. Occasionally I’ve run into actors who actually don’t feel it’s necessary to learn their lines until the show opens. Not only is this nearly always a recipe for disaster, it deprives the other actors of a safety net in case they lose their way. But sometimes it’s just that real life intervenes in a way that’s unexpected. It happens.

Line Crisis #1: The most common disaster is having no idea what you’re supposed to say next. Everyone has seen an actor go blank. I’ve seen one of the most accomplished actors in the business lose her mind right after her opening line. There is a particular look of terror in an actor’s eyes at that moment.  What am I supposed to say next? I have no idea! What did I say just now? No, no that won’t help! Will this eternity ever end? No, that’s why they call it eternity!

One time another actor could not remember a line during a rehearsal. I teased the actor, because the line was the title of the play. The gods of theater quickly took revenge on me for my teasing. In the middle of a performance before a full house, I went completely blank. I was holding a gun on my lover who was supposed to be frozen in terror. Nothing he could say to help me. When that endless moment of what I’ve heard called “going into the white room” was over, the word I was supposed to say was, of course, the title of the play. Lesson #722: Never taunt another actor — your turn will come all to soon!

In my own defense, I will say I’ve saved a fellow actor or two when their own mind went bye-bye. Once I was a stage manger standing at a doorway entrance to a cafe scene when one of the actors went so blank and with such obvious terror that all the other actors were frozen in place, unable to speak. We might still be in that cafe now, years later, except that there was a woman playing a waitress standing next to me and I told her to go out and ask if anyone wanted more coffee. She objected, but went out. A moment later, everyone unfroze and the play went on. This pause was long enough that I imagine the audience did realize something was seriously wrong, but no one died, life went on.

Line Crisis #2:  A variant an the first is less agonizing in the moment, but perhaps even worse in retrospect: You think you’ve finished, you’ve said what you have to say; you’re convinced it’s the other actor who’s gone blank. But you’re wrong. You’re supposed to say something else, something that’s almost impossible to move forward from if you don’t say it.  In the play, I’m doing now, for instance, I’m supposed to have a bad cough. My cough is a cue for a whole dialogue that in which my son tells me I should “get that cough looked into.” If I don’t cough, what’s he supposed to do?

Sometimes you realize that the yawning gap in the action is because you haven’t given a crucial cue line and sometimes the line or action comes right to you and you try not to let your embarrassment screw things up even worse.  But sometimes, now that you know it’s all on you, you still don’t know what you’re supposed to say.  See Line Crisis #1 amplified by the fact that time has passed elapsed before you realized what the hell was going on.

Line Crisis #3. You know the line, but the sequence of words it get mixed up in your head a bit, so you’re afraid you could spit out utter gibberish.  Actually, not too serious. Audience’s are generally reasonably forgiving about a garbled line or two as long as everyone keeps their cool and doesn’t break character. The danger is that the garbled line will throw you off and lead you back to Line Crisis #1.

Line Crisis #4. The fatal leap: You skip a line to another point in the script and other actors have no choice but to follow you. There are two varieties, large and small:

4a. Small:  A stumble, maybe noticeable, maybe not; maybe throws off the other actor, maybe not; Only a line or two skipped in reality, no harm to flow or information to the audience.

4b. Big: You and the other actors are now in  completely different moment in the play than you should be. A major chunk has been skipped, very likely containing material critical to the play making any sense.

I will never forget the time this happened. A three character play, all of us on stage the whole time, other than very brief moments stepping into the wings pretending to do something. A sound cue wasn’t played, a line was dropped, another line was mangled, and then, the fatal leap: I spoke a line and did an action that belonged later in the act. Not a little bit later, fifteen minutes later! A crucial part of the story would be lost if we didn’t retrieve that section of the play. All three of us looked in horror at each other. We all knew what had happened but had no choice to go merrily forward from cue to line to cue to line. After a few minutes, a tiny window of opportunity opened and we went back to the missed portion of the act. The same thought crossed all our minds simultaneously: What would happen when we got back to the place we’d jumped to? Amazingly, without any of us being precisely sure how, we got back to that spot and smoothly jumped ahead to the closing lines of the act. The director, the stage manager, and my wife (who had run lines with me endlessly) cancelled any heart stress tests they might have ordered, because they figured they’d survived this, but first-time viewers of the play I talked to afterwards had no idea that something had gone wrong!

Line Crisis #5:  The sometimes-fatal false fatal leap: You (or another character) didn’t skip a line, but you think you did. In the non-fatal variety, nothing bad happens, you just go on. In the more serious variety, thinking you’ve missed a line discombobulates you enough that a Line Crisis #1 through #4 rears its ugly head.

I think these are most of them. There are probably others that I just haven’t had the misery to experience for myself. Or perhaps they were so horrible I’ve repressed them.

You might ask, given the potential for the disaster, why does anyone do this? Perhaps it’s like parachuting or bungee jumping, the adrenal rush of the fear makes one feel more alive. Or perhaps it’s just so enjoyable when it all does work, when an audience is moved, or thrilled, or laughs aloud, or cries, or thinks a thought they didn’t think before.  It feels so good that it’s just plain worth it.

On stage, one rides the surfboard of the lines whether one has good balance or not, and says a silent prayer every nanosecond that the flow of memory to mouth keeps flowing, hoping that the sense of being out there on your own personal tightrope will only add to the drama and so add to the pleasure of both actor and audience alike.

More: Effective Methods for Learning Lines