With another weekend in the books, I’ve been reflecting on some of the conversations I had with audience members after the show. They’re always very complimentary and enthusiastic, and great for an actor’s ego. Also, the previous weekend we had our talkback performance, where audience members were welcomed to stay after the show and share their questions and observations with the actors and creative team. It’s a lot of fun, both for the artists and the audience alike. The questions run the gamut from “How long have you been acting?” and ”Who’s your biggest inspiration?” to “What was the symbolism behind wearing shoes that were the same color as the bench you were sitting on?”
But the one question that we actors get asked more than any other question is, “How do you remember all those lines?”
Are you ready for the answer? It’s simple: sometimes we don’t.
I’ve been acting for 25 years, and by the time a person does something for that long, he should be pretty good at it. Still, there are times that I don’t memorize the words correctly, but paraphrase them instead. I don’t mean to do it, but it happens: ”this” becomes “that,” “tell me the truth” becomes “don’t lie to me,” stuff like that. And there have been times that I’ve forgotten a line, or said the wrong one entirely. Memorization isn’t the real skill, and it’s certainly not where the art comes in. No, the art comes from filling in the blanks, especially when your whole mind becomes one because you just lost your mental place in the script. That’s where the real magic lies in acting: can I find my way out of the mess I’m in without tipping my hat to the audience that something’s gone awry?
We actors have so much information at our disposal: we’re told what to say by the playwright, we’re told where to move and how to feel by the director, we’re given physical things to interact with by the set designer, and audible things to react to by the sound designer, and we’re told when to be in our places by the stage manager. And, of course, we have each other. When something goes wrong, we need to use all of this information to right the ship and steer us back into safer waters, even if the best course takes us backwards for a short amount of time.
I’ve been onstage when the lights went out. I’ve been onstage when the fire alarm went off. I’ve been onstage when someone was supposed to get shot and there was no gun. But if everyone did their jobs correctly, you wouldn’t have suspected a thing. That’s the real challenge: even when you’re under fire, it’s important to show grace.
There’s a saying for that, but I forget what it is. I should have memorized it.