memorization

memorization12

Meryl Streep has spoken about having been one of those actors – you know and envy them – who read a script a few times and know their lines. Her level of concentration and understanding and the raft of intellectual and emotional intelligence she brought to those perusals were, of course, world-class. But when she hit middle age, suddenly it didn’t all come so easily. I wish I could find a transcript of the interview in which she spoke about this, because I’ve hit that moment as well. Disclaimer, I’ve never been able to just read and then know. Just sayin’.

Last weekend I did my first audition in years. Not that I haven’t been onstage, but directors and producers are kind enough to contact me and ask if I’d be interested, rather than my going to auditions. And I keep getting hired for readers’ theater – totally not complaining, I’ve had an amazing time, and actually find reading in front of an audience harder than memorizing. Or harder than I used to find memorizing. In my most recent performance, there were parts I had to memorize, and occasionally I went up. Yes, I’d have prepared differently for that play had it been off-book and yes, I had the script in front of me and yes, I know to keep a finger moving down the page as I go, but let me tell you, it was like being on the high wire, thank heaven for the net.

Auditioning used to be one of my favorite activities. I spent years auditioning successfully in NYC, going from job to job, and that enjoyment, those mini-performances combined with the people-stuff – gauging the room, deciding on the fly which of my extremely well-prepared songs or monologues to offer, laughing and joking with the auditors when it seemed appropriate but always being curious about them, who they were, what working with each of them might be like – made for hugely happy times, once I’d conquered my fears. Kind of a numbers game, when I was in that career, I tried to do at least four auditions per day – you read that right – until I felt comfortable and confident with the process. After that, I tried to hit one-a-day to keep my chops juicy. The decision to audition this past weekend was driven by the fascinating, courageous 2014-15 season Cleveland Public Theatre announced recently, by the playwrights and directors in that season, and by my ongoing admiration for that theater’s unflagging support of local artists and new works.

But.

Have I done a dozen auditions in the past 10 years? I’ve been playwrighting for the past six, which severely curtailed my prep time for auditions, and despite the Land of Cleve’s plethora of theatrical opportunities, auditions are available maybe once-a-month, not four-per-day. After my last couple, I felt that I wasn’t giving it my best effort so I stopped looking at the notices, stopped thinking about what it would be like to do this or that show. That’s not completely accurate. A local theater produced a musical that feels as if it had been written for me, and I coached the songs and planned to audition but life intervened and I thought, “That’s it. It’s a sign, I’ll continue to act when invited but the heck with auditions.” And then CPT announced their upcoming season. And their season auditions. At which one had to deliver two minutes of material – monologue(s), song(s), what-have-you.

Crap.

The two plays that particularly interested me aren’t musicals, which pulled away the easy-out – songs are always easier, their structure supports an actor rather than leaving absolutely everything up to personal taste – so I had to come up with a monologue that showed my facility for language, my intelligence, emotional accessibility, and sense of humor, and frankly, as I’ve aged, appropriate monologues have been tough to find. I’ve recently written a series of monologues for two new plays and decided to use one that’s both funny and moving (imho). Working on it from an actor-prepares standpoint caused rewrites which made it both easier and more difficult to memorize – “WAIT!,” you say, “MEMORIZE? You wrote the blessed thing, don’t you know it?” All I can say about that is, there’s a weird schism in there between the omniscient creator (playwright) who knows what all of the characters want and why and how it all comes out, and the actor fulfilling a character arc. Working on it as an actor strengthened the monologue, particularly its humor. I was ready, I was terrified, and I went up.

That’s right, I went up. I forgot my lines. I wrote the danged thing, and forgot my lines. Turns out I didn’t, actually, but it was going so well that it felt really short, and I didn’t believe that the next line was the next line. The auditors couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive, they gave me the chance to start again, I could feel them pulling for me – and I did it again! I apologized, we all sort of looked at each other, and suddenly I realized what had happened and just climbed back in. They kept laughing at the funny parts and I have to tell you how the playwright in me felt in those moments, the validation, the vindication and when it turned, they turned with me. But I’d gone up twice.

Crap.

Here’s the next wonderful thing about that audition. For maybe the first time ever, I did not spend the rest of the day berating myself, beating myself up for my errors and weaknesses. I chalked it up, did good things for myself (like housecleaning), and let it go. It threatened, a couple of times, little what-were-you-thinking-putting-yourself-on-the-line-like-that thoughts crept around the edges, but I gave them a big hug and sent them off and got on with my life.

The day after the audition, I was called back. What? WOW! Yippee, huzzah, how-on-earth-I-don’t-care-thank-you-Universe! There were a few things I had to work on for that callback, two days hence, including – you guessed it – memorizing a monologue. Now you know why this column is named ‘memorization’ and why I’ve led you through this shaggy-dog audition story, ’cause it turns out that the dog has exactly the right amount of hair. In learning the callback monologue in the course of the day between, I thought about Meryl and Linda Purl (in a post-show talk at Cleveland Play House several years ago, having just finished a beautiful performance of the character Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee WilliamsThe Glass MenagerieLinda Purl said she had learned her lines while making dinner, hanging up the wash, and the like, which made no sense to me at the time, but I now understand it as a brilliant tactic).

About the elements of memorization that are different from my early, youthful, blithe belief that if I worked hard enough, I could memorize full-length, one-woman shows (I’ve done a couple), I thought about the direction that I be able to recite the required monologue while doing other things like ‘standing on your head.’ If I could stand on my head… but that’s another question entirely. I thought about Linda Purl but each time I tried to do something else while speaking the monologue I believed I’d memorized, oy.

“So what’s the point of all of this blather,” you ask, “what are your hard-won lessons on how to learn lines?” Oddly, my best advice is to break it all down to semantics. The monologue I was given to learn for that callback is quite short and, frankly, highly confusing in its mix of tenses and flights of fancy, and I was able to learn it only when I figured it out, phrase-by-phrase and in some cases word-by-word (and looking some of them up). Knowing exactly what I was talking about in both micro and macro ways was crucial to remembering it while walking, jumping up and down, doing the dishes. Varying tempo and volume helped a lot as well. I wasn’t word-perfect in the audition but I held my own in a group exercise that incorporated the monologue and various physical activities. Maybe this is different for you, maybe similar, but if you have your own tricks or advice – especially if you’ve passed the half-century mark and don’t act often – please add your 2¢ in the form of comments – how do YOU learn audition material?

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Oh – bonus – here are links to part 1 and part 2 of an interview with Ms. Streep.

©2014

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