Playing the Part - A distinction between discovery and memory

Skip Maloney

OnStage North Carolina Columnist


As an actor, you hear it all the time. You come off stage after two hours of performing your butt off, and someone in a gathered crowd of well-wishers says, "Oh My God, how did you ever learn all those lines?"

They mean well, of course, but there's something about the question that tells me the person asking it has missed the point.  As an actor myself, I can't imagine asking another actor that question, because I'm acutely aware that the lines, in any portrayal, are the least of one's problems.  The only time I ever understood why someone asked that question was when I portrayed Salieri in a production of Amadeus. The man steps on stage when the curtain goes up (well, actually rolls on stage in his wheelchair) and talks for 45 minutes. It was the only time I've heard the question after a performance and experienced it as a compliment, because otherwise I'm thinking "This person doesn't really understand what we do." Normally, it's best to stay polite or if the conversation continues,  mention what you assume is the questioner's ability to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, even if they haven't done so in 20 years, noting that if you repeat anything enough times, it just sinks in.

Sometimes, actors on stage don't understand what they're doing either and perhaps, for the same reason; a failure to understand the essence of a stage portrayal, which is not about memorization (words and movements) but about discovery.

They're two separate things. which, in the real world, generally occur in a discovery, then memory sequence. Something really cool happens to you and you remember it. If you remember something later, it isn't a discovery. On stage, that process is reversed. You need to do the memorization, first, and get it out the way before you can begin to discover the character you're attempting to portray. Un-memorized lines are annoying to an actor. They interrupt the flow of what he or she is out there trying to do.

Oftentimes, the discovery doesn't come about until an actor has put the performance in front of an audience. Happens all the time in comedies when a performer says a line that he's been saying in rehearsal for weeks and in front of an audience, gets a laugh for the first time. Changes things a bit, that discovery, even though one has to guard against 'playing for that laugh' in subsequent performances; anticipating and more often than not, as a result, failing to get that laugh.

Sometimes, actors never get it. I think back to Quentin Tarantino's Broadway performance in Wait Until Dark. He had the lines down perfectly (although, to be honest, I wasn't 'on book' to verify this) and didn't bump into any furniture, but he just never got it. Without really understanding it at the time, on an intellectual (discussion) level, I experienced a performance that lacked that critical element of discovery.

It's not really something that can be taught. It transcends the memorization factors involved and can only be realized with your lines out of the way. It can occur at moments when you least expect it.

More often than not, it comes in reactive moments, which, when you think about it, is pretty much all the time on stage. An actor, like most people, is constantly acting in response to what's going on around him or her.  So someone says something to you or does something on stage and you react instinctively. You make a move or gesture that wasn't part of the portrayal before.  Hopefully, you've got a director watching to assure that this reaction is appropriate within the context of the play. You can't go out there and on instinct, give a fellow performer the finger just because you've discovered that what he said was annoying.

It's a very subtle thing. You're not likely to find anyone after a performance who'll come up and compliment you on that spontaneous, instinctive gesture you made in Act Two. They're experiencing the discovery that you've made without any conscious awareness of its significance.

Someone (and I really wish I could remember who) once told me that an actor has two things to think about when he's portraying a character. 1) Bringing something new to his or her performance every night and 2) making sure the director doesn't catch him at it.

During an audition process recently, I watched three actors answer a scripted, rhetorical question - What would Thanksgiving Day be without Macy's parade? Each of them responded with their own question - What? Each asked the question, as if they hadn't heard the original question, the instinctive reaction to which is to repeat the question.  In fact, in the context of the play, "What?" is a set-up question for a comic answer, so it needs to be spoken in a way suggesting that the man really wants an answer.

It was an audition, and I have no doubt that the three who were trying out would pick up on that in the course of rehearsing, as a part of the discovery process.

The subject bleeds into the age-old, line reading issue. If, as a director, you see an actor or actress missing the point of a given line and making it obvious by putting the em-PHAS-is on the wrong sy-LAB-ble, then you step in. There is a directorial temptation to just read the line aloud in the way a director believes it needs to be read. Like in the example above, demonstrating for an actor, the proper inflection for "What?" Many times, such a demonstration will solve the problem immediately. The director has just jump-started the discovery.

Sometimes, though, and you get this a lot when you're mounting something like Shakespeare, there are very subtle differences in conversational nuance. A director isn't seeing/hearing what he/she expects out of a given line reading and wants to make the adjustment. He reads the line the way he wants it read, and the actor disagrees for any number of varied reasons. I had a college professor (director, lighting designer, all-around great guy) with whom I shared a running battle. We must have done six or seven shows together, including work as director-performer in a touring children's theater company up in Massachusetts. And we developed a system. He and I would go back and forth about something, allowing each other to articulate our vision for a given line, or stage moment. By mutual agreement, the debate ceased when, and only when he said, "Because I said so." At which point, I would adjust in the way he'd asked and life would go on.

The discovery process doesn't begin at the first rehearsal. For the director, it begins months, sometimes as much as a year before the first rehearsal. You discover you're directing something and start to gather material, thoughts included. The actor, desirous of a role in an upcoming production, begins the process when (and only if) he gets a copy of the script before an audition; 'sides' don't count, they're cropped images of a much larger photo, and as an actor, especially for an audition, you want to look at the whole picture, if you can. Of course, sometimes you can't. Your familiarity with the discovery process will have a discernible effect on your success at an audition, especially in the 'speed' department. Combined with a knack for reading from a script as if it weren't there, any early discoveries you can make about the character from your limited exposure to the script, puts you in the driver's seat.

The director's out in that audition chair of his or hers looking for evidence of that discovery process. He or she will most likely offer the role(s) to auditioners who have instinctively created the type of person he or she believes that character to be. Not always, though. Sometimes directors can be influenced by auditions in a way that makes them re-think the character in some way. Doesn't happen often, in my experience (no figures or anything to back that up), but it happens.

The discovery process on both sides of the proscenium arch (for the director, production staff, performer and audience) is the heart and soul of live theater, because it mirrors the discovery paradigm in our own lives. Like the day we discovered at nine-months-old that if you hit one little plastic button on a toy, lights would start flashing and you'd hear music, or a present-day, real-life discovery, like learning to program your IPhone. Sometimes, you get disappointed (dead battery), or frustrated (with the IPhone). Sometimes things turn out okay.

So the next time someone asks you how you managed to learn all those lines, continue to employ the same polite, respectful response, appropriate to a person's compliment, and perhaps make mention of the fact that it's all part of the much larger and more significant discovery process.

Photo: David Tennant directed by Gregory Doran in the RSC's production of Hamlet in 2008 Photo: RSC