Actor, Puppeteer, and Teaching Artist

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you

Live performance is a system of interlocking skills honed individually and together over time like any other muscle-building, and then deployed all at once. It is almost always desired that the edges of that displayed set of skills are folded under and invisible to the uninitiated, and, on the highest level, even to fellow initiates. So as one progresses, craft becomes more and more opaque. The skilled stop understanding how and why they do it and the very best seem to require no effort at all.

One of those skills is line memorization. It is the favorite party trick of audiences at talk backs the world over and the bane of new performers taking on walls of text for the first time. It is also a performance muscle that isn’t really worked in tandem with other real world skills, so time away from performance really can decondition that system.

A weathered white wooden door beginning to be encroached on with vines set in a red brick wall.

And boy has that been true for me. This summer I am assaying Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night for Madison Shakespeare Company in my first live role in Madison. Aside from a Jacques in Viroqua with Jones Classical Theatre, I haven’t had to store a substantial amount of text in my head since the fall of 2016, pre-cardiac event. I have had shows, but keeping 4-5 scenes isn’t the same as a full Shakespearean role… even Jacques as cut was only 1500ish words. I reckon this version of Sir Toby is 2400ish words, less than half of Titus or Falstaff (in IV 1), but substantial enough when it’s been a while.

As odd as it sounds a few years effectively off from using that muscle have been pretty great at highlighting how exactly it fails. This past week has been the first week off-book at rehearsal so the variety and volume of textual misadventures are still very fresh for me.

I learn text manually by repetition out loud. I get between 5-10 touches in rehearsal before the process moves on to runs and then I have rote repetition out loud during the rest of the day – I try to do the show out loud at least once a day beyond whatever rehearsal I’m doing. I prefer it to be on my feet – giving myself additional context clues helps, and the energy of a scene creates additional handholds for remembering non-contextual beat shifts – which are a trouble spot for me.

Learning lines on one’s feet, at the pace one performs at, with the blocking one performs essentially means that the other performers simply slot into what you’ve been doing by rote at home. Especially with standing companies this works great, line readings are more predictable, so are the physical choices – even if the blocking isn’t locked in.

Where I hung myself out to dry in this specific process:

  1. I am trying to wash Falstaff out of my system. So the pace and rhythm I started this Sir Toby with has changed markedly as he has progressed. I also have been trying to find broader vocal dynamics to better suit the slightly finer grained world we’re trying to build,

    This means that the pace I’m doing the show at is out of sync with how I am trying to perform the role now. So I get out over my skis with the text moving faster from my mouth than is now motivated.
  2. I don’t know the new kids. Their readings are new to me and are changing as quickly as my own are. So I learned the text in a rhythm that doesn’t match the real world.
  3. I didn’t physicalize enough. In trying to make this Sir Toby a creature of at the very least a real world his physicality is generic and muted. This wishy-washyness deprived me of an additional handle to help get text into my body.
  4. I embarrass easily. This one is stupid, but real. I’ve been running lines in common space with my wife and under-committing to doing the blocking while running lines so as to not look stupid.
  5. I under-compensated. I knew it had been awhile, and I knew my brain works different on antidepressants and with controlled blood sugar, but I didn’t start drilling earlier than usual to cover for it. I stayed on my normal schedule of drilling after blocking (so I can drill with the blocking) and that left me a week short of where my director needed me to be.

All of which is fine honestly. No need to worry: I have the show, it’s in here.
(Even Act 3 which honestly feels like a one act play dropped in the middle of a play.)
I just need to deliver it at show speed to humans as cued by humans. Which is a different muscle and one that requires repetitions, which is exactly what rehearsal is.

It’s good to be back live, and nice to finally debut in Madison 3 years after landing.

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