What's my line?
In Christopher Durang’s hilarious one-act comedy The Actor’s Nightmare, an average Joe is mistaken for an understudy and forced to go onstage without knowing any of the lines. Although in real life actors never end up in that bad a spot, even seasoned vets can forget their dialog, which is known in the theatre as going up.
Though the origin of the expression isn’t clear-cut, it’s believed to derive from the fact that people tend to look up when trying to recall a piece of information, as if gazing toward one’s brain might help. In the past, when a performer would go up or dry (which is what they say in the UK), he could call for “line” and it would be delivered by a prompter seated out of view but within earshot. Or perhaps he could try what Tony winner John Mahoney did during a Chicago revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner: “make something up and hope it sounded ‘period.'” At other times, a fellow performer might save the day by reminding his scene partner of the words (although sometimes it’s not the line that’s been forgotten, just who’s supposed to say it). A few have even been known to leave the stage to fetch the script!
These days, thanks to technological advances, some actors opt to wear earpieces so the lines can be fed to them directly and discreetly. Heck, Al Pacino recently depended on a series of teleprompters for his loquacious character in China Doll. Though helpful, these advents are controversial, with some complaining that they interfere with a performance and that actors who can’t remember their lines the old-fashioned way should retire. (Of course, anyone who saw wired-up Tony winners James Earl Jones (84) and Cicely Tyson (91) brilliantly duke it out in the recent revival of The Gin Game may beg to differ.)
The fact is, memorizing and, more importantly, remembering lines can be a daunting task, and most performers live in fear of forgetting them. They even have nightmares about it… just ask Christopher Durang, who used his own bad dream about going up as inspiration for The Actor’s Nightmare!
— Raven Snook
This video was created by TDF and The Assembly.