Sitting at my office job, typing up emails and following up with phone calls when my scene partner pops up in a GChat. It’s Romeo’s quatrain of the lovers’ sonnet and it reminds me that I haven’t been over my lines today for the play I am doing with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. I type back my reply, sending it, but then I panic, thinking I’ve sent the wrong line – we’re out of order – but he replies and it turns out I was in sync all along. Phew.
When people comment on my acting, they usually say something sweet and endearing like, “I can’t believe you memorized all those lines.”
I usually reply a little too condescendingly, “I mean, it’s what we do.”
You perform brain surgery. I memorize information and repeat it in front of people. It’s all in the training.
I had an acting professor in college who rubbed his thighs and had spittle that built up in the corners of his mouth when he was watching a scene that got juicy. He used to say the easiest part of acting was memorizing the lines and I, full of pride, agreed with him, scoffing at anyone who struggled. I, after all, was left-handed like my grandfather, in my “right mind” and, also like my grandfather, had a photographic memory. Ha ha!
My mother used to bemoan going through spelling lists with me as an elementary school student because I would stare at the list for about ten minutes, picturing it in my head, and then proceed to do a cartwheel for every letter of the word I was spelling. My mom still complains how it took forever, but I always got 100 percent on my spelling tests.
Photographic memory. Super human skill.
So memorizing Juliet’s lines should be a cinch, right? I mean, sure, she talks a lot, but we’re doing a 90 minute version of the text, so
she’ll be shaved down in all the right ways and tell a clear, engaging, tragic story.
This is a lot of text.
And I can’t stare at it like I would my spelling tests. How did I do this in college? I seem to recall memorizing 1/6 of the Tempest in less than three weeks and a poem, like The Jabberwocky, every day for Voice Class. Hellooo. Earth to actress.
This is how I do it at 24 years old.
I sit in what I pretentiously refer to as my rehearsal studio. It’s really a sun room that serves as a fake Christmas tree holder during the warmer seasons and where we eat holiday dinners during the colder ones. My dad thinks it’s a good idea to keep all his guitars in here and use it as his “music room.” Yeah, nice try, dad. Say hello to the actor’s studio. I lay on my back in the center of the room and spread myself out to stake rehearsal room claim, but my acting instrument – my body -is nothing compared to three guitars. I exhale. Haaaaa. This is how actors warm up our voices. Huh Hummm Muhhhh.
I’m not joking.
I lay on my back and make snow angels on the wooden floor boards. I roll onto my side and run circles around the floor using my feet to propel me like Donald O’Connor does in Singing In The Rain. No, I haven’t actually looked at my script yet.
I sit up in a Yoga Lotus position.
Actors always sit like this when they’re learning their lines. How can something enter my brain if the sides of my feet aren’t criss-crossed to be touching the inners of my thighs? I don’t know either, so I ensure I’m sitting in the lotus position perfectly before I pick up the script.
I pick up the text, but my butt is cold and I realize I haven’t had my afternoon cup of coffee, which I’m about to earn, so I leave the “rehearsal studio” and make a fresh pot.
While I wait for the coffee to brew, I look at my first line: How now?
How now brown cow? I remember the children’s book and decide I haven’t seen my childhood trinkets in awhile. I venture downstairs to locate them and ensure they haven’t been thrown out… Snuggle Piggy. I love this children’s book.
Focus, Jana – you’re supposed to be drinking coffee.
I pour a large cup of coffee and sit down on the hard, cold, wooden floor boards. My body shivers and my teeth chatter, but I say my first speech: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Hey look, I know my lines!
Photographic memory. Super human skill.
OK, of course, I knew these lines before I knew I was playing Juliet… .everyone knows those lines.
Huh Hummm Muhhhh.
The coffee’s cold. The voice is warm. Time to work.
I stand up. It’s all in the verse with Shakespeare. Where contemporary texts rely on subtext (what isn’t literally being said, but what is implied through tone), Shakespeare gives the actor clues in the sounds of the words and the rhythmic cadence.
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
The repetition of Romeo says a lot. Each Romeo sounds different, means something different. Is she relishing in him? Is she pondering who he? Is she irritated with him?
“Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name!”
Montague. Name. Repeated. Parts of the body. A list. Each part of the body is different, representing something different, holding a different weight in the speech. Does the list build?
This is where the work begins. These are the clues in the text. The “O” in “O be some other name” can be elongated sort of like Oriole fans do before the start of a game at Camden Yards when they sing the Star-Spangled Banner’s lyric, “O, say does that star–spangled banner yet wave.” The vowel “O” can represent agony, longing, desire. It reveals Juliet’s emotional state.
This is where the work is. The mystery of Juliet’s character is solved in the text if I know where to look, how to find it.
Then I remember, the best memorizing doesn’t come from text books. How often did I memorize facts in highschool, regurgitate them for a test, and instantaneously forget them? The memorization – or, how I memorize all these lines – is in the work, the technique that is unearthing the mystery of the character. The best memorization comes when I’m not trying to memorize Juliet for the sake of memorizing and regurgitating her, but when I’m making discoveries about her, when I’m connecting to her, and when I’m understanding her.
If I understand her character through the clues in the text, I understand who she is and why she says what she says and why she does what she does.
Huh Hummm Muhhhh. Time for a coffee refill. And another speech.
Jana (it rhymes with “banana” or “anna”) is an artist from Clarksville, Maryland. Growing up her parents always told her to “be whatever you want to be.” Seeing as she has come from three generations of doctors, she obviously became an artist. As an actor, she has performed internationally Off-Broadway, and locally to the Baltimore/DC area. Favorite roles include Juliet, Ariel, and Caliban. Jana is the Founder of Red Connect Online, a social media marketing company that creates customized advertising campaigns for small businesses. You can listen to her podcast, Confessions of a Closet Christian, on the E-Squared Media Network. You can also follow her on Twitter (@Jana_Stambaugh) and friend her on Facebook.