Actor’s Etiquette: Memorize Your Lines

charm-school-for-business-etiquette-6-5-20121I once directed a play with a cast of experienced actors.  At the first rehearsal, I gave them my usual spiel about memorizing lines (you can’t do any real acting until you are off book; the earlier you memorize them, the better your performance will be; I suggest you aim for three weeks before opening; don’t try and go off book until you really are off book, because it’s a waste of everyone’s time and I won’t permit it).

Some directors set “deadlines” for the acts to be memorized, but really – there’s nothing we can do if you miss the deadline, is there?  It’s not like we can send you to bed without supper (not that I think negative reinforcement is a particularly influential approach.)

The actors nodded at me as soon as I began speaking.  As experienced actors, they knew exactly what I was talking about, and three of the actors in this show had a ton of lines each, so they knew what they were facing.

Three weeks before we opened, none of them had come close to memorizing their lines. I hadn’t really focused on this fact.  Yes, I knew they were still carrying scripts around, and yes, they seemed to rely on them more than I thought they should be at that point, but these guys had been around the block more than a few times.  They knew what was required.  They were pros, they’d get it done.

Also, different people handle memorizing differently.  I’ve worked with actors who made me unsure they were ever going to finish memorizing the script, but came in Tech Week solid in their lines and doing some remarkable work.  I hadn’t really worked with two of these actors before.  What did I know about their process?

Three weeks out, it finally occurred to me that I had to bring the obvious to their attention:  “Uh.  You guys might want to think about memorizing your lines.  We open soon.”

I could tell by the expressions on their faces that they hadn’t fully registered the gravity of their situation until I brought it up.  They began to work in earnest on memorizing from that point on, but two of them never really got solid and we had one performance that took a big hit as a result.

As a director, the one thing I DON’T worry about is whether an actor has memorized their lines.  It’s not my butt up on stage, and the one thing the audience won’t blame me for is an actor who forgets his lines.  I have always figured the potential of public embarrassment is sufficient motivation for an actor to hit the books and get his lines down.

I was wrong on this particular point.

I can’t memorize your lines for you.  I also don’t wish to be a nag; it’s an unpleasant role to have to play.  In the future, I’ll remind my casts each week of how far we are from opening and note where I think they are in terms of memorization, but I’m not going to do more than that.  You’re responsible for yourself.

Memorizing your lines is a basic element of being an actor.  Do it early so you are sure to get it done.

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