This is a Ramble. Read at your own risk.
Getting off-book is a problem for many actors.
There are many excuses, but the truth is I don’t actually hear that many excuses nowadays. A while back, Facebook saw a rise in popularity of “When you tell me you don’t have time, what you’re actually telling me is this is not a priority,” and since then the #1 excuse for anything on and offstage has fallen by the wayside. In its place, I see sheepish glances and nods; this is not ideal, but it is infinitely better than getting into an argument with someone over why they could not be bothered to do the one thing they absolutely, empirically must do to have a “good” show.
My old grad school acting teacher compared learning lines for actors to running sprints for running backs. If a running back says “I don’t feel like running sprints today,” there is a good chance they will not be a running back much longer.
But like I said, the age of making excuses seems to be waning, at least for now.
There are a lot of different methods for memorizing lines. Although I occasionally utilize mnemonic devices (“There’s a lot of Ts in this line; I’ll bet the next word is an T word”), mostly I just run my lines over and over and over again. I understand this is not meant to work for everyone, but I was using it even back in middle school. I cannot help expecting that those who claim that this technique does not work for them, simply don’t do it. I’m sure it’s faster for me than it is for others, but that’s because I have twenty years of practice doing it. When I started out, it was as laborious for me as for anyone.
Nowadays, I spend most of my time with community theater (or “storefront theater,” as it is known in Chicago). These theaters pay very little, and often they pay nothing. This has led to many actors saying, “If you want me to be memorized, then pay me.” And ya know, in a libertarian, marketplace sort of way, that’s a valid point to make. Such actors perhaps do not realize that their refusal to memorize lines is not merely an inconvenience and frustration for the director (and the stage manager). It is also, and much more importantly, an inhibition to their ability to rehearse, which necessarily damages the rehearsals and consequently performances of every actor with whom they share dialog, or even just stage time.
In the unlikely event that this is unclear, I’ll elaborate. If you are thinking of what your lines are, you are not thinking of your motivation. You are not thinking of what other actors onstage are doing. You are not paying attention to your environment. You’re not “present,” to use the touchy-feely-arty term. I think this is another way of saying that you are “too in your head,” running internal checks rather than focusing on your surroundings.
Most importantly, I want to join the ranks of those dispelling the myth that getting “too off-book,” or getting off-book “too early” will damage the spontaneity of a performance. I have directed actors who got off book early and lacked spontaneity. I have also, most definitely, worked with actors who got off book very late and lacked spontaneity: I can think of far more examples of the latter than the former. The actors I know that are most capable of spontaneity, also get their lines down early. I even work with actors who have a lot of improv experience, and still get their lines down early, and still display outstanding spontaneity.
No less an actor (slash-pop-star) than Bill Nighy remarked on this recently. You must know your lines so well that you can rattle them off without thinking. This, I think, is the best way to simulate natural speech: to rattle off words without expending your mental energies trying to figure out what those words are. Knowing your words this well also allows you to play around with them easily, which increases spontaneity.
When I direct a show, actors are expected to be off-book the second night we visit a scene. Nine times out of ten, this means our first stumble-through is off-book. This is particularly convenient for me as a director, since it means two of the most car-crashy portions of a rehearsal period occur at the same time, minimizing wasted rehearsals. Lately though, I have not had many wasted rehearsals, because most of the actors I work with are anxious to get their lines down. I suspect this is because they enjoy acting.
Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can say they are acting if they are spending the majority of their time inside their own head, trying to remember their next line. Moreover, I cannot imagine how that could be a fun experience for anyone. I think some folks who call themselves actors really just want people to look at them; I think they want their friends to tell them (with a plausible veil of sincerity) how talented they are. Most of all, I think they want someone in a position of power to point at them and say “I want you,” for a particular show. Selfishness aside, this seems pretty neurotic to me. If the biggest rush you get is being cast in a show, then the lion’s share of your work still waits after that high is over.
I think one of the leads for my first directing gig in Milwaukee put it best. At a talkback after a show, she remarked that I had the cast get off-book unusually early (halfway through a five-week rehearsal process). This was an experienced and successful Milwaukee actor, who had also spent several years in New York. Despite the frustration of having to jump this hurdle earlier than she was used to, the actor remarked that this enabled her to connect with her cast-mates much earlier and more effectively, allowing her to experiment more. Her costar agreed with her shortly thereafter.
Anyway, I guess my point is that Off-Book is not a chore that the director imposes upon an actor. It’s not a power-play or a way to make their life easier. It is the primary (meaning both the most important and the first) preparation technique that allows sincere acting to occur: not only for that specific actor, but for every actor with whom they share the stage.