Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Learning the Damn Lines...

I've done a few big ones. Lines galore. And each and every time, it's really, really difficult. I did a one-person show some time back called "Give 'Em Hell, Harry." James Whitmore originally did it. In fact, there's a filmed version of the actual stage play back in 1975 and, unbelievably, Whitmore actually got an Oscar nod for it. I guess because it was on film it was eligible, even though it was simply a camera pointed at him onstage. Anyway, it's a big one to learn. Two and half hours, more or less, of being Harry Truman on stage. Did it for a long stretch back on the east coast.

To learn it, I thought I'd play with a few different techniques. I have a few friends, decent actors all, back in NY that swear by the tape recorder method. Tape the entire role, sometimes even the entire play, in a monotone and read it into a tape recorder and then listen to it over and over and over, ad nauseum. On the surface, it seems maybe the most painless method available. The problem is, my mind wanders. I lose focus. Tried it with the Harry gig and it started out swimmingly. I always had the headphones on, everywhere I went; the store, driving (this was before the cell phone laws), sitting around the house, everywhere.

I quickly learned an ugly truth about myself; I don't have the focus for this. I couldn't concentrate on the words. They were just so much noise in the background of my life. I call this technique now The Osmosis Technique. For me it is tantamount to sleeping with the script and hoping the words come to you in your sleep. It just doesn't work for me. I suspect some of that has to do with my own failings as a person lacking the skills to concentrate for long periods at a time, though.

Another technique, which actually does work to a certain extent, is the writing approach. The actor actually writes the words over and over. Whole notebooks filled with the same lines. Sort of like Jack Nicholson in The Shining writing the same sentence over and over. Creepy scene, that. So I tried it. My hand cramped up and I lost interest. I found that in addition to being frustrating, learning lines became physically painful. Out that one went.

I once asked Sam Waterson (one of the most "normal" people I've ever met that also happens to be an actor) what he did. Remember, Sam did a two hour, one-manner about Lincoln back in the day. He said exactly what I was afraid he was going to say..."Pace and talk, pace and talk, do it again, just pace and talk." Er.

Moriarty shared a technique I thought was sheer lunacy until I tried it. He told me to learn the "big chunks" backwards. That is to say, start with the last sentence of a long monologue or soliloquy and then learn the second to last sentence and so on and so on. He said the human mind will instinctively move quickly toward what it knows best, and what it knows best is what it learns first. He said that's how he learned Richard III when he did it at Lincoln Center. I tried it. It works. But it's too hard. Again, the old focus problem. I'm just not disciplined enough for it.

There is a famous story of Olivier learning Othello in a field of cows. He wanted his voice a full third lower than his actual speaking voice for the role. To do this, he felt he had to first LOSE his own voice. So he would march out every morning to a neighboring field full of cattle and begin shouting Othello's lines. Oh, to be a fly on the wall, or more appropriately, a fly on the cow, for that one. The image is startling: Lord Olivier out amongst the beasts of burden screaming the great lines of Shakespeare at six in the morning in the English fog.

So today, I'm back to Sam Waterston's very practical advice. Pace and talk, pace and talk. That's what I'm doing today. I did it yesterday. And I've found, like I did back in my Harry Truman days, that I really only have about three to four hours in me. My mind begins to reject after that. It's like every morning I have a gallon bucket to fill in my head. Once I've filled it with as many memorized words as it will hold, everything else just spills over and is useless.

I remember the late Mick Denniston, a good director and friend, telling me tongue-in-cheek, "The script is just a guide." He was referring to my unfortunate habit of paraphrasing. Well, this time I'm paraphrasing myself. So every single time I get lazy as an actor I'm disrespecting the playwright. And I'm finding the two exist in a fragile, small room in my head. They're forced to hang out together day after day. I'd very much like the playwright to be the Alpha Male in this hesitant co-existence. But the actor, as always, the actor is very, very slippery.

Oh, and you'll notice I'm starting to discover the bells and whistles of the blogging world. Note the new pics to the right. That's stage left for the actors reading this.

I'll see you tomorrow.