As our two play performance groups get stuck into rehearsing Lucy Kirkwood's NFSW and Will Eno's Middletown, I wanted to write a series of blog posts to support the work they are doing in rehearsal, as for many of them, this will be the first time doing a full on play. But it's also written for the general reader, and reflects some of the difficulties and confusions I encountered when I was a beginner actor. I hope you find it useful!
So you’ve just landed a role in your first play, or near enough to it. You’ve been given the time of your first rehearsal and sent your script and there it sits on your desk at home. You flick through the pages, taking a mental note of how often your character appears and how many words sit under his or her name. All you know is that, in however many amount of weeks, you’re going to have to know all these guys off, and know them like the back of your hand.
But you’re itching to start. To do something. And then you recall a friend - let’s say one who has a bit of acting experience - once saying: “You should never learn the script too early. If you learn it too early, then you learn it in a certain rhythm and then it will be too hard for you to take direction from the director and do it the way they want you to do it." So you put the script down. And then you pick it up again, because it’s a whole week to rehearsal and you’re dying to get started now - what do all those famous actors do when they’re working alone in their trailers or dressing rooms anyway? Well, besides learning lines.
So you think: “Yes, I’ll read the play. I’ll read it more than once!” And you read the play. And yeah, it’s good, you suppose. It’s hard to get used to the layout, but once you do, you can get through it in a couple of hours. So you’ve read it three times. And you might tempt fate a little by reading your bits out loud. In front of the mirror. But the third time you read it, the emotion in your voice feels like it has gotten a little thin and your face looks more like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” rather than Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. So you put the script down. Because you can read it till the cows come home, but you’re not really sure what you’re supposed to be looking for in there.
But then you read an interview with one of your favourite actors. And in the interview they say that they always have every single one of their lines down before rehearsal starts, that having a script in your hand is just an encumbrance. So you pick up the script again and you have a go at the first two pages. You skip down to your bits and attempt to commit them to memory - spending a good hour on the first two pages.
But you find that the only way they stick is if you kind of sing them a little in your mind, which means they start falling into that rhythm that you were warned about in the first place. So you stop. You put the script down. You decide you’ll wait till rehearsal and just do what the director tells you.
But something doesn’t feel right about that. You ask yourself: “Is that all acting is about, anyway? Just standing there waiting to do what the director tells you? Why is it even called an art-form if that’s the case? It doesn’t really sound like you’re an artist if some director has just decided you look a bit like their idea of the character, and you come in and stand where they want you to stand and speak in the tones of voice they tell you to. There’s no way that the great actors, or even the good actors we see on our local city stages, work like that.”
And you know they’re doing stuff at home, and bringing the fruits of their labours into the rehearsal room, so that they can collaborate with their director. But you’ve no idea what that is.
This blog post is not going to be able to fully answer that. Three years at bloody RADA is probably not going to answer even the half of it. But, it’s always good to have a starting point, so, what I would like to do over a series of blog posts is share a few tips and techniques that will allow the beginner actor to engage with their role in their own time between rehearsals, and therefore feel like they have more to offer when rehearsal time comes about.
So let’s get to that million-dollar question…
Should I learn the lines in advance?
Yes, there is always a danger of getting stuck in a rhythm, but I would err on the side of learning the lines as early as possible, especially if you have a lot of them, and even more especially if you are not used to doing it. Line-learning memory is a muscle that has to be trained. A good rule of thumb for beginners is that you really want to be spending at least the second half of the rehearsal period without a script in your hand. AT LEAST.
How do I avoid getting stuck in a rhythm?
If you find it hard to learn them without putting too much expression on them too soon, what will stop you getting caught in a rhythm is if you take some time to get used to playing with the stresses on the lines. Pretend you are throwing a ball to your reflection in the mirror, really engage the whole body as you do so. This is important because it connects the words you are speaking to your physical/emotional being. “Throw” the ball at different words in the speech and notice what that does to your emotions or sense of meaning. For instance, “I have LOST my hat” feels a bit different from “I HAVE lost my hat” or “I have lost MY hat”. You get the idea.
Another way is to play the line with varying objectives. To explain this properly needs at least one blog post all to itself, which is definitely forthcoming, but for now, think of it this way:
Every character has something they want - their objective - which is best phrased as “I want to…” and followed by a verb, for example, “to give”, “to push”, “to defend”. This is even better if it is something they want to do to someone else. For instance, if two characters are having a verbal sparring match, “I want to win” doesn’t have quite the same charge as “I want to beat Susan.” However, it doesn't have to be, say for instance, if character is extremely thirsty, your objective might be "I want to quench this thirst". I'm not a person for hard and fast rules about these things, if it plugs you into the scene, then that's good enough for me. So let's just say for now that most things that characters say are in order to do something, to get something they want. How the director and actor interprets this in the script makes that production specific to that company.
What I mean here, is that it might be written in the script that your character says “Give me a glass of water”. But they might have different reasons for asking for that glass of water. It mightn't be to do with the glass of water at all. You might want to dominate the other character, or to shame them or to challenge them. Look at Peter O'Toole here, in Lawrence of Arabia asking for a glass of lemonade. Yes, it's about thirst, they've just come out of the desert after all, but it's about alot more than that at the same time. And watch Harold Pinter take it to a whole other level in this scene from The Homecoming. (About two minutes in)
Bringing this back to the question of learning the lines without getting stuck in rhythm, try to work out different possible objectives behind your lines. "I want to intimidate", "I want to seduce", "I want to charm". Try the most unlikely objectives with the lines, just to increase your flexibility and shake you out of stuck patterns. You can then work together with the director in rehearsal to find the possibilities that most resonate.
So what’s the best way of learning lines?
Another million dollar question. We all take in and process information in different ways, with the different thresholds emphasised in different ways for different people. Some people are very visual, with photographic memories. Others have a stronger audio threshold - they remember lyrics and melodies with little to no effort. For me, it’s a little of those two, but it’s more logical and kinaesthetic. The logical side brings us back to what I just said about objectives, in that it makes sense to me within the logic of the play as to why a character would say a given line at a given time, because I know how that line relates to what the other person has just said and in relation to what my character wants. The kinaesthetic has to do with being fully focused and on your feet in the rehearsal room.
My own learning process happens in three stages:
First, sitting down and memorising the words through looking at them on the page, covering them and speaking them aloud (part audio, part visual) and then checking that I’ve got them right - going over mistakes and moving on to the next section once I’ve nailed them. Doing this page by page. If you start this early in the rehearsal process and do a few pages every day, you (and the rest of your cast and most definitely the director) will be thanking you later.
Second, speaking the lines and trying to achieve something with them in the three dimensional space of the rehearsal room. I remember I say this specific line just at the point where I raise my head to intimidate my scene partner, and I say this specific line as I cross to the door because so and so has just slapped me in the face and I want to get out of there. As a kinaesthetic learner, this is where the magic happens for me, and the lines just seem to go in. Especially if the director is anything like I am and makes you repeat sections over and over again during rehearsal in order to get them right. It might drive you mad at the time, but, you'll be so glad of it in the last week of rehearsal when everything is flowing and you're getting to the core of the character and the play rather than worrying yourself (and everyone else) about lines and moves.
And the third step is finding time outside of rehearsal to meet your scene partner and run the lines with them, and, if possible, go over the scene itself and consolidate the moves, and get the energy flowing. This is better to do after you have rehearsed the scene in the director at least once, as you'll have an idea of what you need to consolidate and what direction it needs to go in.
How about recording your lines?
Yes, by all means. Use the recorder on your phone and listen back while you are washing the dishes, walking the dog etc Remember always that you need to learn your cues to - that is, the lines that the other actors speak that prompt your line. So, for the first stage of it, get a family member or friend, or even better, your scene partner, to read opposite you while you read your lines, record all of it and get familiar with the scene. Just remember the health warning earlier about getting stuck in the rhythm you can’t get out of, so counteract it by finding different ways to say the lines either through stress, or by varying the objective. Then, hit pause after your cue line, give the response, and play it back to check that you have it right. You might also be interested to know that there are several line learning apps available for working in this way.
So, that deals with most of the common questions around line-learning that I've encountered. I'll deal with other questions and issues that arise from my group as the term progresses. Feel free to comment or ask questions if any arise.