Thursday, October 29, 2009

"How Do You Learn All Those Lines?"

Stage actors get that question all the time. Civilians often think the hardest part of the actor's job is memorization. Most actors, however, consider that aspect of the job to be the grunt work, the tedious foundation which has to be laid before the real work (and the real fun) begins. I'm not alone in considering it to be the least impressive part of a performance, knowing the lines.

Pity Matthew Broderick this week. He's a stage vet, and probably thinks the same way regarding the learning of lines. Through little fault of his own, he's become embroiled in a sticky situation regarding the world premiere production of Starry Messenger. The New York Times is reporting that Broderick is calling for lines this week, during the show's first previews. Some audience members are grumbling, with fair reason, that they are paying good money to see a star performance; the least he could do is learn the lines.

Starry Messenger is apparently an extremely wordy play, and is being directed by its author, Kenneth Lonergan. (Whose idea was THAT? Is it EVER a good idea for a playwright to direct the very first production of his own play?) Lonergan has never directed a fully staged production of any play, and, as the piece is new, has been rewriting the thing during previews. The majority of the four-week rehearsal period was spent rehearsing the first draft of the script, and the author has only lately begun to cut, rearrange, and rewrite dialogue. The production was damaged last week by the loss of one of its actors; Tony nominee Jonathan Hadary withdrew to accept a better gig, and his replacement is actually carrying a script during previews.

I've often attended productions where the actors are unsure of their lines, but only one show I've seen comes to mind which used a prompter. I wrote last week that I attended a summer stock production of Follies in Long Beach, CA, about 20 years ago. There were some pretty old stars involved, including Yma Sumac of all people, but the most enfeebled of them all was Dorothy Lamour. Remember her from the "Road" pictures with Crosby and Hope? Well, by 1990, she was about a hundred and two, and had no business being onstage. Somebody persuaded her that she should play Hattie in Follies, which included singing "Broadway Baby." I was concerned for the woman's safety as she teetered onstage, clutching the arm of a young chorus boy, who deposited her center stage for her big number. She could not remember any of the words, and even 12 rows back, I could hear the conductor in the pit shouting the lyrics to her as she began each phrase. It was a true train wreck.

As menial as we consider the task of memorization, we have all felt the terrifyingly sick feeling of losing our lines. I never used to have a problem with lines, but developed one in grad school. I was doing The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which is a 90 minute solo play. For an hour and a half, I talked. During our final dress rehearsal (we had no previews, of course, this was grad school), in one section, I went up. Severely. Being alone onstage, there was no one to help me climb out of the hole, and I
eventually gave up and called for the line. This seems like a little thing, and in fact it was, as there was no one in the theatre except the director, but it rattled me so thoroughly that I developed a routine of reciting the entire show, out loud, before every performance. I followed that routine several years later when I performed a play called Vigil, which consisted of two hours of monologues delivered by my character. I did two different productions of the play, and in the first, I actually went to the theatre every morning and ran the show onstage, by myself, even after having played it for weeks in front of audiences.

Whether it's age or martinis or what, when I'm in a show, I now run all my character's dialogue each and every day before that day's performance. (It usually works for the straight plays, but sometimes fails for the musicals; I previously wrote about the hilarious first preview of Man of La Mancha, in which I rewrote lyrics.) It's the dullest, most agonizing task in the world, learning lines, and reminds me of drilling multiplication tables in the third grade (and don't ask me what 7 x 8 is, I don't remember). But that sick feeling which comes when you are unsure of your words can't really be described to a civilian.

I sympathize with the Starry Messenger audiences, who are feeling a bit cheated this week. The New Group, the Off-Broadway company producing the play, is a subscription house, and as such, cannot delay their preview period, though they delayed their official opening due to last week's cast change. So in this instance, the show must go on, even if the actors are unprepared. I bet Matthew Broderick is feeling the pressure this week, and he has my sympathy. Maybe he should go the route of the older thespians like Angela Lansbury, who are wont to wear earpieces so they can be cued from the booth during performances.