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Memory in motion

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / November 29, 2009

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How do actors memorize their lines?

It is a question audience members often ask ourselves. We may struggle to remember a three-item grocery list, and yet there the actors are onstage, smoothly reeling off Shakespeare soliloquies or delivering mouthfuls of dialogue as if they were making it up on the spot.

Not always, though. Audiences were startled at a preview performance on Broadway of Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Starry Messenger’’ when the veteran stage and film actor Matthew Broderick had to call out for numerous lines from a prompter sitting in the front row. (In fairness to Broderick, the play had undergone several rewrites, and to judge by reviews, when the show opened, he nailed it.)

Clearly, learning lines is a tricky business. We asked a few area actors to shed some light on its challenges.

ELIZABETH ASPENLIEDER

Star of the one-woman show "Bad Dates," presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare & Company this year.

Q. What's your most useful trick for memorizing lines?

A. It's almost like creating a quilt. I learn a piece, and then I go back over the piece I've just learned and add to it, and then I add another piece, and then I kind of do the stitches around the pieces I've just learned. You'd have to be superhuman, I think, to memorize the script all in one fell swoop.

Q. What's the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?

A. With Joan Ackermann, doing "Ice Glen" in 2005, we had the playwright sitting in the room, so we could change things. On the one hand, working on a new play, it's a gift to have a live playwright. But the challenge was that we'd be changing the script constantly. It starts to be like a blender: "Which version am I doing?" We had changes in the script right up to the opening-night performance.

Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?

A. I've had it happen in so many different ways it's not funny. But that's the beauty of live theater: Anything can happen. I'll get lost in the moment, and I'll think: "Where the hell am I?" I had a blooper when I was doing "King Lear." I was playing Regan, and I came walking out onstage and I had to give a bunch of orders, and I started saying . . . something from "Much Ado About Nothing." At that time, I was doing "Much Ado" by day and "Lear" by night, while also learning a new play. But it didn't matter. I said it with such conviction that people bought it.

ALLYN BURROWS

Star of Lyric Stage Company's "Shipwrecked!"

Q. What's your most useful trick for memorizing lines?

A. Walking with my script. To get out in the woods and just walk and be able to say them out loud, to find a country road and walk till my feet ache. You're in motion, just like you're in motion onstage.

Q. What's the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?

A. I was doing "Pericles" in New York, and we had a short rehearsal process. A lot of theaters, due to financial constraints, have been forced to reduce their rehearsal periods by a full week. They were hurrying up, and when you're learning lines, it's tough to hurry them.

Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?

A. I was doing "Taming of the Shrew" once out at Shakespeare & Company, and all of a sudden everything got real still onstage. That's when you fall off the cliff, and you're falling backward, and when it comes back to you, it's only been a few moments, but it can feel like an eternity. You feel your face flush, and you look toward your fellow actors and they're giving you a blank look. You have to just remember where you are. But the thing about Shakespeare, you can't really make it up. People notice! I'm about to do "Shipwrecked!" at the Lyric Stage. It's 65 pages, and I talk almost the entire time. It's going to be a horse race. If only I could get one of those little memory chips like they have in cellphones that I could insert behind my left ear for one show, and download all the information.

ROBERT WALSH

Starred in Gloucester Stage Company's "Sins of the Mother" in September.

Q. What's your most useful trick for memorizing lines?

A. It's really a question of getting enough lead time with the material. Clearly, one thing that facilitates more rapid ownership of the words is how well they're written. That said, there are lots of times when there are lots of little similar lines that can really trip you up. Beckett would always alter lines just a little bit. It certainly services the play, but it can be a little bit of an actor trap.

Q. What's the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?

A. I was playing Stephano in "The Tempest," and I was also understudying Alvin Epstein for Prospero. I hadn't understood I would be going on for Alvin until the first day of rehearsal, so I started very quickly learning Prospero. The guy talks a lot! In the midst of it all, I had a family tragedy, and I had to leave just as were going into tech production. By the time I came back, I had been knocked around enough to not own the words anymore.

Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?

A. Any time I've dropped [a line], I'm aware of it. The thought will always pass across my skull: Is it something I have to go back and pick up? Is it integral to the story line? We're talking millisecond decision making. Nine times out of ten, the audience will not perceive that you've dropped a line. So the key is to pause, breathe, don't freak out.

JACQUI PARKER

Star of the Huntington Theatre Company's "A Civil War Christmas."

Q. What's your most useful trick for memorizing lines?

A. You just have to look at those lines every single day. And you have to say [them] out loud. I record all the dialogue the other characters say, so I can really begin to understand the rhythm in my bones, where my line comes in.

Q. What's the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?

A. I was in a play recently where I read the script every single day for months before rehearsal began, but I kept it in my head, thinking that when we went to rehearsal I would say it out loud. It was a play where there were only two of us, and for two hours, we just talked. There were no magic tricks; no lightning that was going to flash; no tricks that would help you visually. I think we called for a line twice [during a preview]. I'll never get caught off-guard again.

Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?

A. It happens all the time. Our job as an actor is to know that play so well, including other actors' lines. So if an actor drops a line, I can find a way to creatively bring it back, or vice versa. It's a part of the business.

CAROLYN CHARPIE

Recently starred in SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Savannah Disputation."

Q. What's your most useful trick for memorizing lines?

A. It's like music. If you keep hearing it again and again, it eventually becomes part of you and you just know them.

Q. What's the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?

A. "The Savannah Disputation," because I had to memorize biblical passages. You really have to say them exactly as they are, because there are people who know them by heart. I was nervous to say them. If I said so-and-so was in a battle, and I gave the wrong battle, that would have been it!

Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?

A. Oh, many times. The "Oh my God, what just happened? How am I going to fix this?" overtakes you for a minute. But you just keep going. If it's really important, you find a way to put it back in. Actually, memorizing lines is the easy part. The hard part is living in the moment [onstage] at all times, because you rehearse and rehearse to create something that hasn't been rehearsed. The character is living in the here and now, not as a character in play. To make every moment a reality is the hard work.

ALLYN BURROWS
Star of Lyric Stage Company’s “Shipwrecked!’’
Q. What’s your most useful trick for memorizing lines?
A. Walking with my script. To get out in the woods and just walk and be able to say them out loud, to find a country road and walk till my feet ache. You’re in motion, just like you’re in motion onstage.
Q. What’s the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?
A. I was doing “Pericles’’ in New York, and we had a short rehearsal process. A lot of theaters, due to financial constraints, have been forced to reduce their rehearsal periods by a full week. They were hurrying up, and when you’re learning lines, it’s tough to hurry them.
Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?
A. I was doing “Taming of the Shrew’’ once out at Shakespeare & Company, and all of a sudden everything got real still onstage. That’s when you fall off the cliff, and you’re falling backward, and when it comes back to you, it’s only been a few moments, but it can feel like an eternity. You feel your face flush, and you look toward your fellow actors and they’re giving you a blank look. You have to just remember where you are. But the thing about Shakespeare, you can’t really make it up. People notice! I’m about to do “Shipwrecked!’’ at the Lyric Stage. It’s 65 pages, and I talk almost the entire time. It’s going to be a horse race. If only I could get one of those little memory chips like they have in cellphones that I could insert behind my left ear for one show, and download all the information.
ELIZABETH ASPENLIEDER
Star of the one-woman show “Bad Dates,’’ presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre and Shakespeare & Company this year.

Q. What’s your most useful trick for memorizing lines?
A. It’s almost like creating a quilt. I learn a piece, and then I go back over the piece I’ve just learned and add to it, and then I add another piece, and then I kind of do the stitches around the pieces I’ve just learned. You’d have to be superhuman, I think, to memorize the script all in one fell swoop.
Q. What’s the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?
A. With Joan Ackermann, doing “Ice Glen’’ in 2005, we had the playwright sitting in the room, so we could change things. On the one hand, working on a new play, it’s a gift to have a live playwright. But the challenge was that we’d be changing the script constantly. It starts to be like a blender: “Which version am I doing?’’ We had changes in the script right up to the opening-night performance.
Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?
A. I’ve had it happen in so many different ways it’s not funny. But that’s the beauty of live theater: Anything can happen. I’ll get lost in the moment, and I’ll think: “Where the hell am I?’’ I had a blooper when I was doing “King Lear.’’ I was playing Regan, and I came walking out onstage and I had to give a bunch of orders, and I started saying . . . something from “Much Ado About Nothing.’’ At that time, I was doing “Much Ado’’ by day and “Lear’’ by night, while also learning a new play. But it didn’t matter. I said it with such conviction that people bought it.
JACQUI PARKER
Star of the Huntington Theatre Company’s “A Civil War Christmas.’’
Q. What’s your most useful trick for memorizing lines?
A. You just have to look at those lines every single day. And you have to say [them] out loud. I record all the dialogue the other characters say, so I can really begin to understand the rhythm in my bones, where my line comes in.
Q. What’s the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?
A. I was in a play recently where I read the script every single day for months before rehearsal began, but I kept it in my head, thinking that when we went to rehearsal I would say it out loud. It was a play where there were only two of us, and for two hours, we just talked. There were no magic tricks; no lightning that was going to flash; no tricks that would help you visually. I think we called for a line twice [during a preview]. I’ll never get caught off-guard again.
Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?
A. It happens all the time. Our job as an actor is to know that play so well, including other actors’ lines. So if an actor drops a line, I can find a way to creatively bring it back, or vice versa. It’s a part of the business.
ROBERT WALSH
Starred in Gloucester Stage Company’s “Sins of the Mother’’ in September.
Q. What’s your most useful trick for memorizing lines?
A. It’s really a question of getting enough lead time with the material. Clearly, one thing that facilitates more rapid ownership of the words is how well they’re written. That said, there are lots of times when there are lots of little similar lines that can really trip you up. Beckett would always alter lines just a little bit. It certainly services the play, but it can be a little bit of an actor trap.
Q. What’s the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?
A. I was playing Stephano in “The Tempest,’’ and I was also understudying Alvin Epstein for Prospero. I hadn’t understood I would be going on for Alvin until the first day of rehearsal, so I started very quickly learning Prospero. The guy talks a lot! In the midst of it all, I had a family tragedy, and I had to leave just as were going into tech production. By the time I came back, I had been knocked around enough to not own the words anymore.
Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?
A. Any time I’ve dropped [a line], I’m aware of it. The thought will always pass across my skull: Is it something I have to go back and pick up? Is it integral to the story line? We’re talking millisecond decision making. Nine times out of ten, the audience will not perceive that you’ve dropped a line. So the key is to pause, breathe, don’t freak out.
CAROLYN CHARPIE
Recently starred in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Savannah Disputation.’’
Q. What’s your most useful trick for memorizing lines?
A. It’s like music. If you keep hearing it again and again, it eventually becomes part of you and you just know them.
Q. What’s the toughest time you ever had memorizing lines?
A. “The Savannah Disputation,’’ because I had to memorize biblical passages. You really have to say them exactly as they are, because there are people who know them by heart. I was nervous to say them. If I said so-and-so was in a battle, and I gave the wrong battle, that would have been it!
Q. Did you ever forget a line onstage, and how did you handle it?
A. Oh, many times. The “Oh my God, what just happened? How am I going to fix this?’’ overtakes you for a minute. But you just keep going. If it’s really important, you find a way to put it back in. Actually, memorizing lines is the easy part. The hard part is living in the moment [onstage] at all times, because you rehearse and rehearse to create something that hasn’t been rehearsed. The character is living in the here and now, not as a character in play. To make every moment a reality is the hard work.

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