This is a question that many actors get asked by audience members after a performance. I have never been able to satisfactorily answer this question because for me memorizing lines is the bare minimum that an actor is asked to do. Ask me how I developed my character, or what the company’s process was in the rehearsal room and I can talk your ear off until you politely start to back away and make your escape. But how did I memorize my lines you ask? I just did.
I feel like the beginning of season 7 has given me a more insightful answer to this question than the above. Since the end of July I have been memorizing 3 plays that are all happening within the same span of time, in addition to trying to get as much off book as possible for select scenes for callbacks. Many of the Whistler troupe is in the same boat. Our core company all seems to be in 2-3 productions this fall! (We realize we may be a little crazy!) This in turn has not only made me aware of my outside/before rehearsal process, but also how my fellow actors work. And I am finding that we all work similarly and differently.
I personally have to understand my thought breakdowns before I can make anything in my brain stick. I have been finding this is true for most of the actors I’ve been spending time with lately. Once thoughts are understood I find that is where actors start to really diverse in the remainder of their process. Some of the techniques I’ve been encountering this past month are the use of flashcards, tape-recorders, and luring in significant others, family or friends to drill passages over and over.
For myself, once I’ve figured out what I am saying I like to sit down and break the script into sections for myself and tackle one piece at a time. I’m a huge fan of sticky notes and writing my broken down sections on them so that I can make a little check mark or smiley face next to each one as I feel confident that I have learned it. This helps me track my progress and set realistic daily goals for myself so I’m not sitting down with a 75 page play and panicking that I have to get through the whole thing before I’m allowed to go to bed.
Like most actors I like to be off book as soon as possible because holding a script in the rehearsal room only hinders playing and exploration, and at the end of the day, that is what I feel to be the most important and fulfilling work.
For the first time in our seven seasons Whistler did a first read through (for The Bacchae) on our feet where actors were encouraged to come to the rehearsal with a strong familiarity of the text. This led to us actors being mostly off book, occasionally picking up our scripts for a passage or calling line. For me, the most exciting thing about this approach to the first rehearsal was coming to the final words of the play and on day one feeling like I had a sense of the play as a whole, something I usually find happens in week three or so of rehearsals.
I am interested as we go forward as a company this season what plays this “off book” read through will be a boon too. One thing I know for sure, on-my-feet or not, I would like to always come in on the first day feeling that comfortable with the text I’m about to live in for the next two months.