It happens to everyone at some point. No matter how well you know your lines, there will come a moment where you become unglued and can’t remember a thing about what is supposed to happen next. It will come in a spot you’ve never had trouble with in rehearsals or any performance.
So what do you do when the inevitable arrives?
I know, that sounds ridiculous. How can you not panic? The world is about to come to an end! You will be exposed as a fraud or worse, a fool! You will be the laughingstock of the county for years to come.
Believe me, it’s not that bad. But also believe this: If you don’t panic, the odds are that at least half the time, the audience will not have any idea that anyone has dropped a line. And the other half of the time, they will happily watch you deal with the moment professionally, relax when it is clear that you are back on track, and praise you afterwards for how well you handled that moment.
So okay, you’ve managed not to panic, or to at least limit that moment to a split second. Now what?
Physical motion on stage does not necessarily have to be attached to the spoken word. So moving does three things for you in this situation. One is that it distracts the audience. They assume that your motion is planned and is part of the play, so they are still hanging in with you, blissfully unaware that the train has jumped the rails and life as we know it is about to end.
The second benefit is that because you have created an activity (scrounging around in your purse or pocket for a piece of gum or a pen, looking for the earring you lost this morning, digging through the couch for change for the parking meter), you have bought yourself time to think about what your line must be, or what the next line you can remember is. And yes, it is entirely possible to create meaningless, occasional dialogue to add to your activity while still using the other part of your brain to search for the words you’ve forgotten.
The last benefit is that it immediately tells your fellow actors that you’re in trouble. They can now start figuring out what they can do to save the moment; can they paraphrase your line or otherwise give you a hint that will jog your memory, or can they just skip to the next beat without leaving out any essential information?
Years ago I did a one-woman show, and it DID NOT OCCUR TO ME that I might forget my lines and that there would be no one on stage to save me until the moment it actually happened. In the two second pause that ensued, I held my focus and scoured my brain for enlightenment, but none was forthcoming. Fortunately, the scene had plenty of physical activity in it, and so I just did more of what I’d been doing (trying on shoes and dresses) while talking to myself about how I looked in a way that was perfectly in character. And miracle of miracles, manna from heaven arrived after 20 to 30 seconds, and we were off to the races again and the audience was none the wiser.
That was, by far, the longest “gap” I’ve ever personally experienced in terms of forgetting a line. Since I had no one to help save me, it dragged on longer than such gaps ordinarily do. But because I kept moving and kept talking, I don’t think anyone in the audience realized anything had gone wrong.
I’ve seen actors who’ve forgotten their lines swivel their heads to the wings and look beseechingly at the stage manager for the words that have left them. This is probably the worst thing you can do. It not only lets the audience know that you’ve forgotten your lines in a way that is very jarring, it also means that you’ve got no intention of trying to fix the problem yourself. To an audience, that is both unprofessional and disrespectful, and they judge it harshly. They will sympathize and forgive if they see you muddle through a dropped line, but they are very critical of an actor who has given up the ghost.
The better you know both your character and the rest of the play (the other characters, the plot line, etc.), the easier it is to improvise believable “filler”, and having some experience with improvisation as a form of theater can make handling such moments much easier. You may find, however, that you just aren’t very good at thinking on your feet and improvising your way out of such calamities. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and as long as there is one actor on stage who can handle such moments, you can probably rely on them to bail you out.
But what if it’s a two person scene, and it’s your scene partner who suddenly goes up in her lines? Or the nature of the scene is that it is very difficult for the other actor to save you? (I’ve been in such scenes.) If you’re nervous about your own ability to cover the dropped line, then prepare some possible ways to cover such moments by preplanning things you can do and say to cover such moments. Hopefully you’ll never need them, but if you do, you’ll be glad you did!