Before I start, I want to say that learning 70-odd minutes of monologue is no big deal. There are plenty of other people who learn solo shows, many of which are at least an hour long, and don’t write blog posts about it. There are also many people who perform truly awe-inspiring feats of memorisation. Chao Lu holds the world record for reciting π to more than 67 thousand places. It took him some 24 hours. I’ve personally witnessed Oliver Senton playing Phil in The Warp for a similar span– that was a thing to see, and that’s dialogue, which is much harder than monologue to learn. And if those aren't sufficiently grandiloquent comparisons, then there are the oral traditions. You probably know that the epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek epic poems, the entirety of Brehon law, the Norse sagas, and many another once-memorised text surpass any modern memorisation by orders of magnitude. . .
So, no big deal.
All the same, because I’m interested in how memorisation works, both technically and psychologically, and because people keep asking me about it,
In early February 2013, I know M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I’ve read it through several times and it flows. The words come easily to me; they’re my words. LenaKitsopoulou wrote Μ.Α.Ι.Ρ.Ο.Υ.Λ.Α, but the translation is mine. I wrote every word.
I learned the first 2 pages (10 minutes) back in Aprli 2012, not long after I finished the translation, to perform at a scratch night. That was a scratch of the text itself, really. I didn’t do any work on it besides the learning. I just wanted to observe how the language worked with an English-speaking audience, if they understood it. They did, I even got a laugh or two, which was nice.
I spent about an hour a day on it for a week, and don’t remember any difficulty, though I do remember that it prompted minor rewrites. This flows better than that, you need a different turn of phrase here in order not to skip ahead to the next time you use that phrase; that sort of thing. The only bit I remember of that process is the 555 bus.
I’d agreed to meet my son and his aunt in Keswick and the 555 bus is the simplest and prettiest, if slowest way to get there. I look out the window. “This whole concept,” I mutter, “this birth-death, happy-sad, black-white business, is it going to go on much longer?” I am looking at the mossy roots of the trees outside, the little springs that sparkle among the stones, the giddily bouncing wild rabbits. They’re part of the text now.
• * *
In late February, 2013, I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I’m in Athens. I drop my son off at his cousin’s house, and take the bus to the hospital, running lines in my head. The show is becoming my internal monologue.
My father has just had his spleen removed. It was enormous, full of lymphoma, and excised in an institution that is best known as a maternity hospital. The surgeon is a cousin and a friend – approaching us in the waiting room where the expectant families sit, he tells us Dad was delivered of a spleen weighing only a bit less than my kid did at birth. It wasn’t easy, but it went well. Later, my brother and I go into ICU to see him. He is freshly out from under anaesthesia and incoherent. For the first time I remember he looks old, and frail. Inside my head, Mairoula waxes narcissistic about her mother’s cancer diagnosis. I’m starting to hate her.
A few days later, I have a stupid argument with my brother. The tension is getting to us, the hospital, the worry. I storm off, walk up Kifissias towards the Olympic installations, past the suburban apartment blocks, forgotten village houses tucked among them with chickens still in the yard, the empty lots full of weeds and wildflowers. “Can’t complain,” I tell the nettles and hubcaps, the already-crumbling concrete of the Calatrava walkway “can’t complain isn’t really gratitude”. Later still, my father asks me about the show. Conscious of not telling him about the character’s Daddy issues, nor her mother’s cancer, I read him the bit about being on a ferry boat, the long and increasingly absurd list of amenities she piles up, then rejects. He laughs. In May, when we’re cutting down the text for performance, Stella suggests cutting that bit. I refuse; in the hospital, it made my father laugh.
* * *
It’s March 2013 and I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. Thanks to Stella, I have a version of the script that looks a lot less daunting than the huge block of text I produced. She’s divided it into scenes and I can begin to see the outlines of the structure buried beneath the verbiage like the trunk of a shrub, just discernible under the leaves.
I know the first five pretty well, so I start with scene six. I put the script on the kitchen counter, just under the window. I read the first sentence aloud, repeat it while walking away. If I forget a word or hesitate or screw up, I walk back to the script, read aloud from there, walk again. When I’ve done that a couple of times without a mistake, I add a second sentence. Five sentences takes me through the door of the annexed kitchen, through the dining room, down the hall and to my front door; ten brings me back. When I’ve done ten sentences perfectly a few times, I start a new section. In the morning, walking back from dropping my kid off at school, I run as much as I know. When it starts to take longer than the 25 minutes of a leisurely stroll back, I take detours. I try not to speak out loud where people can hear me, but sometimes a sidelong glance tells me they can.
* * *
It’s April 2013 and I don’t know M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A, though I know about half of it reasonably well, well enough to be getting on with. . . I don’t. Not really. In rehearsal I’ve got maybe a quarter, maybe a third then it’s rant and flail about for the next bit. I get to the end of a scene and face a mental desolation in which not a whisper of a word appears. I improvise actions. More often, I don’t. Stella gives me things to do. Moving, my body stops my brain remembering. I am the worst actor in the world.
I am entirely in awe of Stella (the Stella Duffy) and still not quite able to believe we’re here, in London, working on my show. I am trying to please. I am diffident. I am also constipated. My digestion is as sluggish as my brain. I can’t get how three people (Leo Burtin, producing, Stella and I) can rehearse in open space, but because of D & D I love open space, so there I am. We have three days together. On the last day, my bowels awaken. The need to empty them is overpowering, and it hits me right in the middle of the morning’s rehearsal. Working in open space means that it’s cool for me to interrupt the work, explain that there’s something I have to do right then, do it, and come back. Of course I don’t do anything as sensible as that. Instead, I drag my bloated body thorough various ideas that Stella brings in, contributing no thing to the process but my endurance.
We’re working the “rock bottom” bit of the show, where Mairoula longs for the despair of her adolescence, revels in the memory of. It feels like rock bottom to me, too, but I’m not revelling. Stella gets frustrated with me. I don’t blame her, but find myself unable to tell her what’s going on. I am certain she’s going to decide she can’t work with me after all. Who could work with the near-mute and shambling creature who’s been stumbling through the last two and a half days. I can barely endure sharing a body with her. With Aliki, I mean, though the more I think about Mairoula, the less I like her, too. She’s selfish, vain, pretentious, angry, self-involved, the kind of woman who fawns over men and ignores other women. I’ve forgotten why I ever wanted to play her.
Afterwards, lighter of body but more anxious than ever, I come back and we talk. I own up to the hero worship, and the anxiety, but not to the leaden bowels. It’s not an easy conversation, though Stella handles it with a generosity and perceptiveness I will come to know as typical. She shows no signs of wanting to abandon the project. I am giddy with relief. We’ve got one week off, then another three days in Lancaster.
In that week, rather than resume my one sentence at a time regimen, I try to learn the scenes I half-know by reciting them with the script in front of me and my eyes closed, opening them to check a particular word, or see what happens next. By the time Stella comes up to Lancaster, I know half the show. I’m desperately nervous that the next rehearsal period won’t go well. The night before we start, I invite Stella and Leo to dinner. I fret about the food, because it gives me something to fret about, but in the end it’s as pleasant a meal as I’ve ever shared.
The rehearsal period is a joy, and the exercises Stella brings in show me how to fall in love with Mairoula again. We find some physicality, some hidden structure I can rest on, we find her kindness and her acute, acerbic eye on her own follies, her flights of poetic extravagance. We find, somewhere inside me, an open-hearted warmth to give her, a tenderness for the audience that I see in Stella, and that makes everything alright. We show the first half to some friends in Lancaster, and they’re engaged and friendly. One of them saw that first extract performed the previous year “I can see how much you’ve worked on it since,’ she says, it’s changed completely.”
* * *
It’s May 2013 and I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. Stella has suggested a number of cuts, as we’re trying to bring the length down to under an hour. I’ve accepted most of them, rejected a couple – one because the Greeks will get it, even if no-one else does, and one because I don’t want to lose the bit my father laughed at. I’m surprised by how quickly I get used to skipping bits of text I’ve already learned; I expected that to drive me nuts. We have a final few days of rehearsal scheduled in London, then a little over a month to rehearse on my own before we open.
In London at the end of the month, I still have my script in hand for the last 10 minutes. It makes things tricky, because this is the most physically complex part of the show. We block it as well as we can. It’s almost there. I feel good.
* * *
It’s June 2013, and I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. My housemate is helping me. He’s a graphic designer and a cartoonist, so his schedule is flexible and we can run lines when I’m free. He’s also Greek, and very perceptive about language. He teaches me some of the references I didn’t get in the text, elaborates, comments. He is the perfect person to do this with; patient, knowledgeable, relentless, precise. We run lines every day. I’ve got it all, except that last little bit, which I know vaguely, but not well.
In the last three weeks of June, I have a rehearsal space booked, three times a week. I can lay out the whole playing area, run the actions with the lines. I start to learn things by what I’m doing, not saying. I start to think about how I need to be saying that there so I have time to do that and then I can say that bit right after I’ve finished doing that bit. This is the part of rehearsing I love best. There is more creative ferment earlier in the process, but it’s always shadowed by the fear that it will never come together. At this stage, you have confidence, a shape, a sense of how it will play, but there’s still room for tinkering. I have all the beautiful stuff. The dress, and the rug and the wonderful sofa. Nerissa comes to watch a run. It's the first time anyone's seen it without me holding a script at some point or another. She's concerned about the sweat stains showing. She's right, as usual.
On the days I don’t have the space booked, I take long walks. It’s a beautiful time of year. I gather elder blossoms from the trees by the canal, I wander down into the marshy ground between the canal and the allotments, declaiming a very Greek text to the vivid English leaves. My boots are muddy. I am a study in exhilaration.
* * *
The show went well. One night in Lancaster and a film to show for it, a film which will form the centrepiece of our attempt to book a tour. I spend the summer running the show every day in my head. Back home in Greece, I run it swimming in the sea, the show’s length perfect for my morning workout – breast stroke out, freestyle back. Soon, I start to stumble, and by the end of the holiday I’ve given up. I’ll learn it again when we have dates.
Tour booking, it turns out, is more complex than we knew. Months pass, and then more, and then hope appears. Her name is Claire and she’s booking the tour right now. Send her an email.
It’s February 2014, and I’m performing M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A again in less than two months. I'm scared, so I wrote to Stella and got the loveliest response. This morning, I went down to the cellar, opened one of the two suitcases where I keep the show, and took out the script; it’s the first time I’ve seen it since July,
It’s February 2014, and I’m learning M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.