Part of my own writing regimen includes looking back and finally filling in all of those gaps where I said, “I’ll tell you about that another day”. This will be one of those days.
I discussed a couple weeks ago about how people would often ask me how I was able to learn so many lines of dialogue while doing a show. The Man With The Plastic Sandwich and Infidelities! are two shows that I not only played the lead role, but had 80+ pages of dialogue to memorize. It’s stressful and a lot of work to get all those words shoved into your nogin, but once they are there and you feel comfortable with them it is the most wonderful feeling in the world. I actually realized by the last weekend of …Sandwich that I could be thinking about other things during the show and still know all my lines…really, I’m not kidding…I was actually thinking about how far we were into each act and how much was left…and still was ready to respond naturally. I’ve never been in that level of comfort before with my dialogue and perhaps it shows that my techniques are working. I’ll explain my process.
First I read my script. About five times. Having a really good feel for the subject of the play is just as important if not more than actually knowing the lines themselves. During show dates you may find that an actor begins to drift off or improvise their lines (accidently or purposely), and in cases like that you may need to improvise right back. So, if you don’t know what the lines actually mean then you can be pretty screwed.
Next step is meeting the rest of the actors and having a good line reading session. Some people like to tape these sessions. I personally don’t, and I’ll explain that in a moment. What you should do in these sessions is listen to each actor and try to get a general idea of how they sound. Don’t be nitpicky about how each line is said…that could change at any time. Listen for accents, general voice pitch and volume.
Following this, I go home and record the lines myself into MP3 format (or cassette tape if that’s still your thing). I do my lines at a quiet level and the rest of the characters at normal levels. This way, I can play the lines back while driving in my car and recite them along. If I get stumped I just turn the volume up to get my hint then I turn it back down again.
Without the CD, I take to pacing, patterns and repetitiion. I will walk the room saying all of the dialogue I have in order as far as I have memorized to and when I reach a roadblock I look at my script, say the line outloud, repeat it 3 or 4 times without the script then back up 3 lines and see if you can get it to fit into the sequence. If you master that, go back to the beginning and see if you can get even further this time. This sounds like a long, drawn out process, and in fact, yes it can be. But damn rewarding when you realize it works. Also realize that you should memorize monologues and dialogue separately. Get the monologues over with first, they are actually much easier to retain, believe it or not. Not sure why exactly yet, perhaps different area of the brain.
Once you feel you are at 80% with the tape, get another human to lineread with you. The other actors are pretty good choices, but your spouse, a sibling or parent can be a good replacement. I don’t recommend asking strangers off the street, especially if the play has mature content…could get you slapped with a sexual harrassment suit.
Now, yay! You know all the dialogue and monologues. Now what? Next you should look at each line as you say it and analyze the timing, emotion and pronounciation of each word. So many shows sound flat because an actor didn’t take their time in this step. Horribly important. Don’t know what a word, sentence or joke means? Look it up, ask somebody, something. Because you know, if you say it wrong, chances are there’s going to be that one person in the audience that knows what it was really supposed to be and they will giggle inappropriately at your mistake. Very embarrasing to find out about afterwards.
Next, play. Have fun. Take risks. If a joke falls flat when you say it one way then switch it up. Place a beat at a different part of the line…maybe it will come out funnier that way. It’s amazing how a show can evolve when everybody works on finding those moments that work.
So…that’s it. Those are my techniques as of this time. It was an evolution getting here, and I’m sure I’ll change some stuff up in the future. Also, what works for me may not work for everybody else. Anybody else have a technique they wish to share? Do tell in a comment.