How did you learn all those lines?
At least one member of any theatre audience anywhere.
It's a question actors roll their eyes at. Line learning, after all, is basic. Wondering at an actor's ability to learn lines is like being impressed by a football player's ability to kick a moving ball. Sure, for a klutz like me, it would be quite an achievement, but to a professional it's entry level stuff. It's basic, like a chef chopping onions or turning on the gas; stuff that any fool can do if they put their mind to it. This particular fool finds it quite easy; much easier than learning blocking or choreography of any kind. I sweat blood to learn movement scores, getting my left and right and my forward and back thoroughly muddled, and no amount of description can help me find my way through, only repetition. In contrast, words in order don't need much to stick in my memory. In an ordinary rehearsal process I need only to read the scene through a few times in advance, and after a handful of rehearsals I know not only my own lines, but everyone else’s too.
Yes, it’s obnoxious, and yes, it makes me cocky. Recently I was performing a horror story at a literary festival, and changed my mind about which story two days before the gig. I adapted the new story into a 10 minute monologue, which took most of the first day, and spent the second day, performance day, learning. It took me about 5 hours of solid work. I got away with it, because my cockiness is not without foundation - and because the director trusted me, she didn’t panic, at least not visibly. It went well, and people said nice things about the show as a whole, and about my part in it. Still, in those last minutes of silent panic, frantically going over the lines in my head as I waited to start, I thought: This has to change. I used to be well-prepared as a matter of course. I didn’t used to put such strain on the equanimity of directors. When did I get like this? Too many last minute gigs, too many shows still devising the day before tech, too many semi –professional shows with their usual mix of dedication and coasting, too many cabarets, too much seat-of-your-pants-theatre.
I don’t think I can get away with that with M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. It’s sixteen pages long, single-spaced, or about an hour and a half of uninterrupted speech. The director has asked me to be off book before we start rehearsals in April. She’s right, I know she’s right. But it’s not just cockiness that makes me play chicken with my own memory, it’s also a sort of procrastination that only the sheer terror of an unmovable deadline can pierce. If I were to proceed in the way that’s become my habit, I’d look at my calendar sometime in late March, panic, and spend a week or so cramming the text into my brain all day every day. It would more or less work, it would be okay. But okay is not good enough for M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A, for the show I’ve been working to get made for over a year. I picked a very ambitious text, I’ve translated it as well as I can, I have the good fortune to be working with the best possible people to be doing it with – I’m going to learn it. Properly.
That was what I decided, about a month ago. I set myself the goal of learning two pages a week, a nice, relaxed schedule. Too relaxed; there was no fear to keep me working. And there was life. Life happened, as it does, and brought disappointments and exciting developments and a health crisis among my dearest and nearest, and in short, I do not have eight pages under my belt. I have three. This is not a disaster. There’s still all of March to go. If I learn 3 pages a week, I’ll be in good shape for April.
Good shape! That reminds me, I’d also linked a get-performing-fit resolution to the line-learning schedule. I would time my workouts, my much-needed the-last-time-I-was in-good-shape-for-physical-theatre-was-before-my-son-was-born-and-he’s-eight-years-old-now workouts to fit the lines I knew, so that as I learned more text I would spend longer on my fitness. No, I didn’t do that either. It was a good idea though, right? Right. So I’m doing it, now. And to keep me honest, because something has to, I choose you, oh perusers of this blog
I now know the first 3 pages of M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. By Monday the 4th of March, I’m going to know the first 6 pages. And I’ll be able to engage in some cardiovascular activity (probably that knee-to-opposite-elbow thing that’s used a s a hip warm-up) for as long as it takes me to recite them. I’m going to post here to say so, and in honour of that at-least-one audience member, I’m going to tell you how I did it too.