There's a piece in the Times
this morning about Norbert Leo Butz's stepping in as Bobby Gould for Jeremy "Thermometer" Piven in Speed-the-Plow
, concentrating on the difficulty he's having in learning ALL THOSE LINES in the couple of weeks he's had since graciously accepting the part and winding up onstage. The piece has already caused two vastly different (and as yet apparently unaware of each other) reactions in the Theatro-Blogging-Industrial Complex.
The Playgoer is very generous, as is the Times and almost everyone else, regarding Butz's problems jumping into the production so quickly -- he's had his script in hand for some of the show, and a prompter, though he's probably off-book by now -- and uses this as a starting place for a discussion of "Okay actors, how DO you learn all those lines?" (as he notes, the nauseatingly never-ending question we are all asked by everyone NOT an actor)
Mike Daisey is a helluva lot less forgiving on Butz, feeling that the time indicated in the article is MORE THAN ENOUGH for Butz to have gotten his act and lines together (Daisey has played this part himself a few years back, it should be noted, so he knows of which he speaks here), as it's not THAT long a part in a pretty short play, and he feels it's inexcusable for Butz to be holding a script onstage (let alone on Broadway).
I agree with one of these views a lot more than the other, but I'll get back to that at the end. First, an attempt at an answer to Playgoer's main question, based on my own experience and what I've seen in the many hundreds of actors I've directed and acted with, "How DO you learn all those lines?"
Um, wait, no. There's no ONE useful answer.
Okay, well, actually, there are as many different answers to this as there are actors and plays. Multiplied times each other. And for some answers, there are new problems.
For me (because I can only speak for myself), every play is different and requires different ways to learn lines. Some come easily, some don't. Sometimes you get almost the whole play down in a couple of days, and weeks later you're still shaky on one scene, which you've been working on non-stop, after opening night. Every play now requires me to find THE way THESE lines for THIS character are going to stay in my head. Sometimes I absolutely HAVE to be looking into the eyes of the other actors to remember my lines, and if you asked me to do them elsewhere I couldn't. Sometimes looking at the other actors will make me go up completely. Sometimes the monologues in a script pop right into my head and I can't get the dialogue. Sometimes the reverse.
I used to think that what made it different each time was the playwright's language - that some writers had rhythms and patterns that were easier to get stuck (and that verse was easiest of all). The easiest time I ever had learning a part in the last 15 years was in Kirk Bromley's verse play The Burnt Woman of Harvard in 2001, where I would show up to the first rehearsal of every scene completely on-book and by the time we'd have run the scene four or five times I would be completely off-book (to my amazement), for that section for the rest of the rehearsal/performance process! I thought it was Bromley's verse, but when I did another verse play by Bromley a few months later, I was completely at sea and struggling with lines for the entire run.
I'm beginning to think more and more that it's the character you are creating that dictates your relationship to your lines - if you and the character are in sync right away, maybe, the lines will be coming out of you properly . . . but this is a recent development.
The whole process changes as you get older - at least it did for me. From ages 15 to 25 I could learn an entire play (everyone's lines, not just my own) in a couple of days by reading it aloud a couple of times, and for years that's all I did to learn my lines, read my part aloud a couple of times (mumbling my cues as a lead-in), and show up to rehearsals knowing it. No problem -- I learned Marlowe's Faustus in a couple of days at age 24, word-perfect, this way (including the Latin, once I'd researched the pronunciation).
Then it started getting tougher, for whatever reason (sometimes I think my brain just plumb done got full), and they didn't just stick in my head like they used to. By the time I was 30, I had lost the ability to just know all my lines after a couple of repetitions, and, even worse, I had never learned any other technique to get them down.
For the last 10 years - ages 30 to 40 - line memorization has more and more become a torturous, terrifying process for me, most of the time. I can go through a script repeatedly, all day, for several days, each day working until I can do all of my lines for the whole play perfectly, and then wake up the next morning with over half of them gone. Terrifying. I am now almost always shaky, or worse, on opening nights, and I haven't found anything that improves matters consistently.
The closest thing to anything that works for me now, at least what works best, is to work alone in the actual theatre space -- since, more often than not, I'm acting at The Brick and I have access at many times when I can be there alone, I'm very lucky. I have to be on my feet, going through the actual blocking, over and over and over again, for many many hours. Preferably at least three 8-hour days. Doing the entire play. Over and over and over again. Alone, because if I get other voices in my head apart from the other actors' it'll screw me up. And that's BESIDES working on it at home, where I can sit down with the script and carefully think about interpretation and subtleties. The time on the feet in the space is just about DOING it, getting the lines into actual muscle memory, less than thinking about it.
It doesn't get me perfect, but it can get me close. When the time I have set aside to actually do this work gets taken away from me for various production reasons (which has happened on several occasions), I'll be lucky to get through the first two performances. After that, I'll be fine. Generally.
For some reason, when learning lines for audition monologues, writing the monologue out longhand is EXTREMELY good for getting them down. But it only works for monologues. Must be something about the short form and lack of dialogue.
As for others, there are actors I direct often who always show up for first rehearsal with their entire part learned (hiya Adam, Aaron) and often they know other actors' lines better than those actors (like I did when I was younger). They seem to have the "read it a couple of times and it sticks" method still going for them. I see more and more people listening to their lines and cues on iPods, and so far everyone I see doing that has been really good on their lines (okay - there's a method I haven't tried yet! maybe next time . . .), though apparently Mr. Butz has been doing that and still needed the script and prompter.
Working with dozens of actors constantly I see many ways of handling the job, and most people seem to have some consistent method for gradually getting the lines until they're all there by tech week. Actually, in regards to the people who get lines down early, I realize I have no idea how they do it -- it's only the people who, like me, have to work on it all the way through the process, who I wind up seeing backstage or in the dressing room or having a smoke or in some corner with their scripts or index cards or iPods or whatever.
Speed-thrus help a lot of actors, I guess, as they get requested often enough. For me as an actor, they are no help at all - unless I hear the rhythm of the lines around mine at proper performance speed and cadence, it's all just meaningless babble to me.
The ONLY consistent way I've EVER found for ALL actors to learn lines is through massive quantities of repetitive rehearsal, on your feet, with all the other actors, in the actual space where you'll be doing the show.
HOWEVER, there is a trade-off (besides the fact that you NEVER get anywhere NEAR that much rehearsal time) which is that the amount of time it takes to get to that level, linewise, begins to take its toll on many, many actors' performances. That is, there are plenty of actors (I work with more than a few, often) who get their performance early in the process (often before their lines) and it's a struggle to keep them working and interested in their correct performance, finding new things without them tearing apart what they already have perfect, while you also try to keep things balanced with the actors who will be discovering their performance all the way up through tech (of course, this is part of what a director's job is supposed to be anyway).
Also, you can be like me as a director (and actor) and find that - SOMETIMES! - a certain amount of uncertainty in a performance is often something to keep, that the slight quality of not being 100% on your lines actually brings a greater effect to a performance, a vibrancy and quality of real thought.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to do this on stage with any security, and one should never outright TRY to be uncertain on your lines onstage, but Marlon Brando's film-acting technique of NEVER learning his lines and reading them off cue cards always worked well for him -- Sheila O'Malley writes a lovely take-down of Peter Manso's silly bio of Brando HERE, where she challenges Manso's snide suggestions that Brando using cue cards all over the set was some kind of unprofessional "cheat" that makes him less of an actor; as she notes, if his "unprofessionalism" brought us Terry Malloy, Vito Corleone, and Paul from Last Tango, three of the finest pieces of film acting ever, maybe it's Manso and anyone who agrees with him who need to reexamine their definitions of "cheating" and "unprofessional."
That said, that's for FILM acting; stage is different. Very very different, almost a completely different craft. And you have to go out as best prepared as possible -- when Brando did stage, after all, he knew his damned lines, as one should -- though it turns out the actors in my play Everything Must Go had their difficult, repetitive dialogue hidden on many cheat sheets all over the paper-covered desks on the set, to a far greater extent than I realized for some time. Which must mean they generally pulled it off, I suppose.
Now, back to the specific case here of Butz taking over this part in two weeks and going out needing a script and prompter, Playgoer has some gentle words:
It's really, really tough for an actor to go out on stage like this. You think going out off-book is vulnerable already! But this, especially when your cast mates are long off book, must feel very exposing. But I must say I admire Butz' humility in letting his process show, if you will.
I appreciate Playgoer's empathy here, but it's actually the kind of thing that also gets my back up, talk about the "vulnerability" of actors (which can wind up extending to the treatment of actors as gentle, "gifted," almost childlike "simple" creatures). Sorry, no. It's not delicate work -- it can be the exceedingly difficult work of CREATING delicate, fragile things with blunt, large, heavy tools (because that's all you have available), but even under the best of circumstances it should not be work for the "vulnerable."
Yes, okay, there is deep, dark, often painful emotional work that has to go on in acting, often. Sometimes you DO have to be "vulnerable" in some way to connect with a part. But that's homework. That's between you and the play, alone, on your own, and has no business in the rehearsal room or at an actual performance. That doesn't mean you're not making it real when you do it onstage, that you're simply "imitating" something you've gone through for real before, but that you have learned to turn on the real feelings and focus them properly in the direction where the play needs to go when it needs you to because you've already worked it out for yourself. That's craft.
I can't imagine going onstage feeling "vulnerable," myself. The character may be vulnerable, and I may feel all of that completely as if it's my own, but there's always an actor in control of himself who makes every entrance onstage with the feeling of being superhumanly impervious, even when he is, in fact, not completely properly prepared to do it -- if there is an audience there waiting to see a show, it is my job to go out and do my part of it without fear (or, I would think, "humility"). No, I don't feel every actor can be (or needs to be) this ridiculously overconfident in doing their work (I need it), but there is a base level of competence I would expect of an actor that doesn't include feeling "vulnerable" as a craftsperson when doing their job.
Playgoer says that this must feel "exposing," what Butz's doing, but for me it would be the opposite -- like stripping down to do a nude scene that you HAVE to do for real to reveal instead a flesh-colored unitard with the naughty bits painted on.
Butz himself says, "I hate sitting around a table and talking about what a play might mean . . . I’m the person who’s always like, ‘Can we get up on our feet and just do it?’" While I DO think there is (with some plays) some virtue about table work, for the most part this is the right attitude. And would generally seem to me to be the attitude of someone who should be able to go out and play Bobby Gould off-book in two weeks. And if not completely off-book should be able to have something close enough in his mind to say that will get him to the next necessary plot point. If some of us (and yeah, I've had to do it, along with everyone else I know that's had more than a few classical parts) can pull some improvised blank verse out of our asses to get through going up on something, I think anyone playing Mamet on Broadway should be able to whip out a couple of lines to move on if they are in the same bag (and I say this as an actual BIG FAN of Mamet at his best - which Speed-the-Plow is not nearly, but whatever - who thinks you HAVE to get Mamet's language and cadences WORD-FOR-WORD correct, dammit! -- but in the real world of theatre production, practicality always trumps purity).
So, yeah, I'm a lot more of the same opinion as Mike Daisey: "The industry narrative going forward, as it is in the article, is that Norman [sic] Leo Butz is a saint for taking on a gargantuan task and should be applauded in any event, regardless of the results. But looking at the timeline and the facts, I think this kind of performance shouldn't be acceptable at any professional theater."
I'm not proud of the situations I sometimes put actors in my shows in, due to lack of rehearsal time or, in the case of this past Summer, still writing scripts up to three days before opening. I don't like doing things this way. But I AM proud of the fact that the actors I work with can handle it, and make the jumps they need to, and get the job done, beautifully -- one actor took over a part in my play Spell VERY close to opening, less than two weeks away, and had to speak large stretches of English and Spanish (neither of which were his first, native language), and pulled it off JUST FINE. Little shakiness in some things, noticeable to me as writer but not to the audience, generally, but no script in hand.
I REALLY would like to agree with what Daisey calls "the industry narrative" -- I mean "Yay, Theatre! Yay, Theatre Actors!" is always a cheer I'm happy to join -- but, speaking as someone myself who has made the same kind of dangerous leap, and both somewhat succeeded and massively failed at it in the past (and seen dozens of other actors in the same boat), I can't sympathize with someone who isn't making that leap, when Item #1 on the job description is "Dare. Jump now."
Now, excuse me while I go back to learning the substantial part I'm playing in one of my August shows (or rather, re-learning, as I played this same part in 2001 but have no memory of the lines at all). I'm hoping to be off-book before the first rehearsal. Ha. Ha. Ha.