“How do you remember all those words?”
It’s a common question civilians often ask of actors. And the basic answer, save horse-sized pills of Ginkgo biloba, is brutal repetition.
Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition. Run your lines in the shower, on the elliptical, in the traffic jam, on the urine-scented C train, while watching the Jets lose, during bad sex, during good sex, and while you’re sucking on that post-coital cigarette.
Run them into a mini-recorder. Then run them again out the window to your neighbors. They love your artistic process. Truly dedicated actors dream about them as they’re falling sleep. And again before working one out in the morning. All those words must come from you as if they were your own, and if anyone has a secret tip that takes half the labor and time, I’m all ears.
A friend of mine says that “repetition dulls the senses.” That maybe be true for a job, a marital routine, your salad dressing, or hackneyed jokes, but I don’t find it true in acting. In fact, the opposite is true. Repetition heightens the senses. Especially in the case of a solo show where one actor is the entire play. I’d go so far as to say that performing artists become stronger through repetition. Repetition is a necessity, but not just blind repetition. Repetition imbued with full understanding, from the meaning of each word, to the muscle memory of how each consonant and vowel sound rolls into the next. Consonants and vowels have the power to evoke emotional responses in listeners.
Perfecting Hamlet’s 1438 lines (roughly 12,000 words) is a gargantuan undertaking and mandatory before you can delve into the role’s emotionality. It takes months of repetition. When those lines are virtually second nature, the actor can begin to explore the character’s inner life. And that’s when the fireworks start.
But there’s so much to manage at the top of the creative process that it’s daunting to the point of sleeplessness. I’m not the only actor who’s had molar-grinding nightmares about being backstage on opening night, peaking between the curtains to see an excited house of loved ones and industry, only to realize that I’ve forgotten to memorize my lines. The lights go down for the start of the show. Your career is toast. How could you have let this happen?
It’s a very diagnosable fear. Between getting the text word perfect, endowing all of the props as if they were your own, managing the costume changes without standing in front of 300 people with your fly open, hitting your marks so you’re properly lit, and timing your lines to fit into the pre-recorded sound effects, you sort of have your hands full. Your lines aren’t the only aspects that must under go the process of repetition. You need to repeat your blocking, your emotional cues and all of the other things not written in the script. But the more you do it, the less conscious of it you are. It’s how the brain frees up space.
There isn’t an actor alive who hasn’t destroyed the binding of play by whipping it against the wall, un-memorized. We can’t wait to get off book so we can begin to explore emotionally. But that’s what rehearsal is for and it’s repetition that substantiates that freedom, and even grounds it. Does it dull the senses? Does it ever get old out there? Are you ever bored? Nope. Once the heavy lifting of repetition is done, there’s far too much pleasure in performing.