Forgetting Your Lines
by Marvin Payne
Do you ever forget your lines? Try looking on the fleshy tables of your heart.
Well, I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I woke up this morning, an hour or so before I was supposed to, with these words ringing in my head, “John Peyton, according to your grand jury testimony, you were a member of the Warsaw Militia. That right?”
This is not the phenomenon known as the “actor’s nightmare.” Mainly because I was awake (sort of). The “actor’s nightmare is when you find yourself on stage and, for any of myriad reasons (or for none at all) you don’t know your lines. All actors have this nightmare.
Somewhere in cyber-land, some reader of Backstage Graffiti is struggling right now with the question of whether or not they’re really an actor. They acted in school, or in the stake production of “Saturday’s Visionary Doodler,” and they’re wondering if there is greasepaint in their blood or merely stars in their eyes. (I myself wonder this at the closing of every show, or while looking through any given eighty pages of dialogue that need to be memorized.) I suppose either condition can interfere mightily with normal physical functions, but here is the answer you have been aching for. If you dream the “actor’s nightmare,” you are an actor. If you don’t, you aren’t.
(But wait! Does this mean that if you dream that you are careening toward the forty-niners’ end zone and you’re about to leap up and snatch out of the sky the long bomb that is spiraling from fifty yards behind you and one defender pass-interfered but the official didn’t flag him and the breath of another defender is burning on the back of your neck and fifteen San Francisco fans holding the small ends of beer bottles are gathering in the corner of the end zone toward which you are careening and suddenly you realize that you are wearing no helmet and no pads and maybe nothing at all, that you’re having the “NFL wide receiver’s nightmare” and according to the above definition that makes you an NFL wide receiver? I’ve heard that Meridian Magazine is talking to Steve Young about a column tentatively called “Locker-room Graffiti,” where you may find the answer to that. Meanwhile…)
I was not having the “actor’s nightmare.” I was having the “actor’s very bad daydream,” wherein you are smack up against the dreaded rehearsal when scripts are no longer allowed onstage. (You can still, in a moment of forgetfulness, holler out “Line,” and the stage manager will prompt you, but this privilege, too, will soon be withdrawn. If you’ve never done theatre, here’s an image that may amuse you: Eliza has asked Josiah to go west with her and the Mormons. He is deeply moved. She grasps his hands. He is more deeply moved. She kisses him. Deeply moved, he gazes into her pleading eyes and yells “Line!” Yes, you may be amused. The actress playing Eliza, however, may not be. Unless she takes it as a compliment, which, given the attractions of the actress playing Eliza who kisses me in Hancock County, she is abundantly entitled to do.
Hancock County is the play that will be born and thrive in the Pardoe Theatre at BYU through the latter half of February, sort of an alternative entertainment to the Winter Olympics. It’s quite a wonderful play by Tim Slover about the trial of the murderers of Joseph Smith. They have brought me in (there are several grown-ups in the cast) to play the prosecuting attorney, Josiah Lamborn, a morally compromised and spiritually starved alcoholic who happened to have been the most recent Illinois Attorney General. (The lawyer defending the leaders of the mob was an astoundingly pious guy–famous for pious–who subsequently kind of founded the Republican Party. This is history. Go figure.)
Working on this piece has been an entire pleasure for me. Our director, Tim Threlfall, inventive and sensitive and respectful and devout, though expecting excellence from us, has demanded of us no unreasonable thing.
Except one. After some reading rehearsals in late November and early December, he asked us to return from a long holiday break to the beginning of blocking rehearsals in January with our lines pretty much memorized. Nobody did. You see, all of us, over the course of lots of plays, had come to rely on more than our heads to learn lines. In a well-performed play, the conversations are real (they just happen to have been written down), the emotions are real (they just happen to be connected to events that have already occurred) and the physical movement is real (just plain real).
The line “Or would you prefer the rule of Tom Sharp, the exterminator?” has a certain weight and staying power when it’s merely printed on a page. It has a greater weight when Tom Sharp is glaring at you across the courtroom. It has a greater weight when, as you speak it, a jury is spread out before you. It has a greater weight when you punctuate the word “exterminator” by the firing of an imaginary rifle. (Especially if, as revealed in a recent column, you have become a “frequent firer” of rifles and are acquainted with the damage they can do.) After your body and heart has experienced the glaring and the jury and the rifle, your mind is more likely to remember the line.
When a course of questioning occurs to you that might allow you to confound your courtroom enemies and win back your place in the “charmed circle” of Illinois law (and maybe even save your life), you will hunger to know how to proceed to your damning conclusion. If a playwright has been kind enough to provide you the words, you’ll be happy to learn them very quickly. Your verbal weapons in the private showdown with the defending attorney come to your mind more quickly and powerfully when you’re standing toe-to-toe with him and see the blood pulsing in his face. On your feet, you feel things about Eliza, about the dead prophet who begins to astonish you, about the woman whose husband beat her into lying under oath. You want to know what to say to Eliza, what to say about the prophet, how to avenge the beaten witness. Of course you memorize, because there’s a life you’re already living every night in the rehearsal space and you need those words in order to live it fully.
My next-door neighbor is continually amazed (well, not steadily. I mean, she feels other emotions, too) that I memorize all the scripts I do. I encourage the amazement, but I haven’t talked to her about how learning the script is the smallest part of learning a show. It’s like getting acquainted with a blueprint. After that, there are still nails to be driven and walls framed and, well, a house to be built. In which lives will be lived.
Paul wrote the Corinthians (the second ones, to be precise), “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men…written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” (3:2-3)
It sounds like the Lord talking when in Proverbs we are told to write mercy and truth on the tables of our heart. (3:3) It’s through experience and passion and physical motion that things like that get written in “fleshy tables of the heart.”
That process makes good theatre. It makes good life.
Last night my wife and I watched the beginning of a movie (only the beginning) where the humans that were photographed (notice I’m avoiding the word “actors”) were clearly reciting lines that other smart-alecky people had written in smart-alecky offices someplace. It just drove us nuts. It wasn’t acting. It was commercially-enforced memorization.
The “like unto us” part:
Have I given talks that were of that particular brand of detached memorization? Have I born testimonies that were detached memorization? (I’d like to bury my testimony and I know this church is true…) How many real-life conversations have I had with Father’s infinitely precious children that were merely constructions of memorized bits? How many of my listeners would have pushed “eject” if only there had been an “eject” to push? (And how many found a way to push it anyway?)
THERE IS A JOURNAL CONNECTION! And here it is. People could read the lives of the (second) Corinthians. Said Corinthians were walking around nearby. The folks who open our journals maybe won’t be able to hang out with us and read us like walking letters. What they read in our journals pretty much has to be, contrary to Paul’s wish, written in ink. But if the words are the same that have been written deeply into our hearts, does it matter?
If we do something beautiful or see something beautiful or feel something beautiful, does it matter if the script is written before or after we do, see, or feel it?
I hope that in the course of memorizing the gospel, we can walk through some of the blocking, look steadily into the eyes of some of the other actors, see what it feels like to shout parts of it and then whisper parts of it, try on for a rehearsal or two the feelings of people who might be more wise, more wounded, more happy than we are, and engage vast engines of imagination. The words will mean more.
Well, hey, sorry not to have been sillier. Chances are, when I’m in a funnier play I’ll write a funnier column. But it’s nice to be with you.
Thanks for reading. I have to quit now. My daughter needs a ride back up to Weber State, an hour-and-a-half north, and she’s agreed to help me memorize a certain troublesome eleven pages of Hancock County on the way.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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