judgement, judgment, let’s call the whole thing off

Back in the ’70s, there was a big Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf directed by Edward Albee (for the uninitiated: the playwright).  It starred Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, and if you’re too young to remember them, more’s the pity for you.

I saw it several times, once from the front row, and it was utterly extraordinary. Gazzara and Dewhurst were like two hands on the same body, so complete was their psychic involvement onstage.

The story that went around the Broadway community at the time was that Gazzara kept the script in his hands throughout rehearsals, throughout tech and dress, and only relinquished it on the first public preview.

Given his and Dewhurst’s mutual brilliance, I’m hard-pressed to understand – unless Dewhurst (and Maureen Anderman and Richard Kelton, who played Honey & Nick) chose to look at his script as a book that the character George carried like a security blanket – how that company managed to get along, to be even civil to one another, with one such selfish actor in their midst.

And did he really not know his lines until the first preview?  Broadway shows carry a solid month or more of 6-days-a-week, 10-hours-a-day rehearsal, how could he not know his lines?

Or is there more than one way to, as they say, skin a cat?

As an eight-year-old, I was taught that acting is a team sport, and that one of the ways you hold up your end is to get off book as quickly as possible, because that’s when the real play, the real playing starts.  Not knowing your lines or songs or blocking holds everyone else back, weakens the team.

But maybe there’s another way.

I’ve written about about the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (and my love affair with it).  I’ve spoken about learning a student’s or actor’s lexicon, so to communicate productively, effectively. Clearly, Mr. Gazzara and I have different processes, and my #1 best and most favorite thing is learning.

So, I’m hugely curious, how and when do you get off-book?


Each of you.

For me, learning lines and lyrics is a matter of logic first – the play’s world’s logic structure, my character’s internal/emotional logic, music’s chord progressions and where my voice fits into the arrangements.  Secondly, I parse the character’s lexicon and the songs’ rhyme schemes.  Then I marry the character’s actions/beats/arc.

And then, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Repeat. Repeat again, combining logic/structure with muscle memory and (perfect, one hopes) practice.

How do you learn lines?

Alone? with a partner? a tape recorder? from a mountaintop? in the bath?

Clearly, hanging on to the book for dear life served Gazzara and that entire production brilliantly.

What works for you?

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2 thoughts on “judgement, judgment, let’s call the whole thing off

  1. When I studied Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse technique with Phil Gushee, we wrote our lines on a double sided sheet of paper and just learned those lines, not those of the other actors which was very effective in getting us to really listen for our cues. In my 30 years of acting I learned best by speaking these written lines alone and then being cued by a friend holding the script. As a graphic artist, I am visual tho so I always picture the line on the page. Re Virginia Woolf tho, I was always under the impression that Ben Gazzarra had a drinking problem and even recall a fairly recent television appearance where he did not appear all that sober.

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