Doing the line dance
There’s an old saying that an elephant never forgets. But if you want to put money on someone’s memory, you’re best off betting on an actor–especially one who works on stage. Theatre actors routinely memorize long scripts, and unlike TV and film stars, they don’t have the benefit of second takes or teleprompters (though a few have been known to use earpieces). That’s why getting off-book is so important: Thespians need to learn all of their lines and their cues for when to say them so they can get to, as Jon Lovitz used to say on Saturday Night Live, that whole “actiiiing!” thing.
Lots of actors have tricks for getting off-book. Heck there are even books about how to do it. Many performers repeat the lines over and over out loud until they know them by heart, likening the process to memorizing the lyrics of a song after hearing it ad nauseam. Others suggest reading the lines silently a few times and then trying to write them down. Sometimes pairing a repetitive activity with your lines helps. For the dialog-heavy two-hander A Steady Rain, Tony winner Hugh Jackman revealed that he and his costar, Daniel Craig, tossed a ball back and forth while running their lines in the hope it would help make them stick. To help prepare for his role in David Mamet’s famously wordy Glengary Glen Ross, John C. McGinley rehearsed with intentional distractions like barking dogs and ringing cell phones to make sure he was truly off-book.
But there’s a school of thought that says the lines simply come once you’re on stage rehearsing. When asked how he memorized his show-stopping, 30-odd-minute monologue in La Bête, Mark Rylance replied, “Even in final dress rehearsals, I won’t know everything correctly. I won’t know it correctly before I need to know it… The danger of it is, I learn a lot of things incorrectly.” Given that he’s won two Tony Awards, he’s clearly doing something right.