How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?

You’re at the audience forum after the show.  The patron in the second row aisle seat house left raises his hand emphatically as he looks directly at you with a piercingly eager gaze full of admiration.  The moderator of the event says to the patron with the piercingly eager gaze, “Do you have a question?”  And he says (as he stares piercingly, eagerly, admiringly at you), “Yes.  My question is for the actor who just gave that fantastic performance.”  His voice goes up a little at the end of the phrase as if he’s asking permission from you to continue on with his quest for the knowledge that only you possess (as demonstrated by your fantastic performance).  With a quick, brave intake of air, he steadies himself and asks you his question:  “How did you memorize all those lines?”……But, really, when you think about it, it’s a good question.  With all that is going on backstage, on stage, up in the booth, out in the audience — cell phones ringing and vibrating, text messages and tweets sent hither and yon, candies and cough drops with the largest and most intricate packaging ever getting unwrapped and seemingly re-wrapped — it’s amazing that actors can keep their focus and carry on with the play.  But all actors get thrown off balance at some point.  Go up on a line or two.  Or three or four (you know who you are).  It happens.  And it happens most often to me when I become suddenly self-aware.  Suddenly self-conscious.  And just as suddenly I’ve stopped paying attention to my partner on stage.  I’ve stopped listening. Stopped caring actually about what’s going on Over There (to borrow a phrase from Sanford Meisner).  That’s the strange thing about learning lines, getting off-book, building a performance.  The more I study what my scene partners are saying, the better off I am.  I then know what I’m responding to and why I say what I say.  And then I find myself guided by the things they are telling me rather than some meticulously memorized version of my own text that I carefully crafted in my car stuck in traffic or late the night before.  The thing of it is, if I’m not paying attention to what my partners are telling me on stage, if I haven’t a fully developed point of view about the things they say, if that point of view doesn’t stimulate in me a strong response, then I’m not really listening. I’m not really responding. I’m not really acting.

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