Yes, it's the question we all hate. The prototypical theatre-layman's question. And it is indeed one of the great fallacies that such memorization skills are all that separates a pro from some crack-up at parties.
Still...it is pretty amazing when you come to think of it. And no small feat indeed for actors who take on huge solo shows, or entire 90-minute monologues. When I saw the latest Connor McPherson play (Port Authority) which has three men delivering intertwining monologues, I did wonder at the skill and practice required not just to know the lines, but your cues! Especially when they're twenty minutes apart. I was falling asleep in the audience (not McPherson's most thrilling play) so imagine what it's like onstage for the 30th or so performance.
So while it is hardly sufficient it is certainly a necessary part of the actor's toolkit. Even though even the best of them have had notorious trouble with it. (Olivier famously "went up" a lot toward the end.) And it's interesting to ask: why? Is it just a visual requirement of "realism"? Perhaps in this age of the staged reading, audiences will come to expect it less.
What prompts these heretical thoughts is a wonderful photo from today's Times:
That's Norbert Leo Butz in his first night in Speed-the-Plow with script in hand. (Ok, on-couch in this moment.) You may recall he's been whisked in to replace Super Mercury Man Jeremy Piven who abruptly left due to a rare case of sushi-overdose.
It's really, really tough for an actor to go out on stage like this. You think going out off-book is vulnerable already! But this, especially when your cast mates are long off book, must feel very exposing. But I must say I admire Butz' humility in letting his process show, if you will. (He was off book in Act I, I should note. And by now probably the whole thing.) Yes, sometimes we've seen actors go out like this who just clearly don't know what they're doing. But everyone in the NY theatre knows what a consummate pro Butz is.
And so I found his description in the Times of what it's like to learn an intricate Mamet script in one week (a script in which he has the biggest part, mind you, and is almost never off stage) compelling in getting right at the anxiety at the heart of the stage actor's craft.
These days Mr. Butz cannot pause to contemplate anything that is not “Speed-the-Plow.” When he is not performing the play, a David Mamet satire about two Hollywood producers and the office temp who upends their lives, he is rehearsing it with his co-stars, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, or he is reading the script with his wife and two young daughters. When he is getting a haircut or a massage or going to sleep, he is listening on an iPod to a recording of the play he made with Ms. Moss and Mr. Esparza.Well aside from how much that IPod recording could get on EBay, this brought another question to my mind. And perhaps it's an unusually nuts & bolts one for this blog. But what is the best method to learn lines.
Care to share, actors? Does recording yourself really help? Do you go off into a secret lair or do you need the rehearsal process?
When I did plays in school, for instance, I found the best thing for monologues--after first basically getting at least the outline of it--was to force some really loyal friend to sit with the script and make you keep going back to the beginning until you got it right. (The important part was not looking at the script yourself that point but making yourself come up with mnemonics.)
Butz's experience, btw, reminds us how much a luxury even the paltry 3-4 week rehearsal process can be. (And why it's so important that's been fought for as a standard over the years. Producers would love a shorter process, believe me.) Once was the day in "rep"--as is true even today in road companies and various "semi-pro" companies--a week is it. Learn the lines on your own and come in off book on day one.
In fact, some directors still prefer and expect that. What do you think of that? Do you insist on being on-book through rehearsals in order to learn them? Or is it better to be freed up and off-book from the start?
And finally--how often do you get asked "How do you memorize all those lines?"