Darren Sextro’s new “In Theory” series discusses various theater topics with artists who are living and breathing the work.
Line Memorization with Bree Elrod
“My goal is to get the text in my body in such a way that I can breathe with the words.”
Although she hails from Topeka, Kansas, Bree Elrod only returned to this region in recent years. But she has already become familiar to both the Kansas City theater community and local audiences through major roles with Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Kansas City Actors Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre. In the past twelve months at the KC Rep, she has appeared in D. Tucker Smith’s ROOF OF THE WORLD, Rinne Groff’s FIRE IN DREAMLAND, the most recent staging of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and the current CONSTELLATIONS. In the latter, she stars alongside Tuc Watkins, directed by Eric Rosen, in a production that continues through April 2 at Copaken Stage.
Okay, this seems so simple, but because this is the first one of these columns, I want to chat about the #1 thing that most audience members, even your family members, will ask about…how do you learn all of those lines? Which seems so lame, but there’s actually some complicated strategy here that varies from actor to actor, not just “I walk a hole in my carpet by working the lines alone and then have someone who is merciless read in for me…”
Funny, I was going to say, “Well…I walk a hole in my carpet by working the lines alone and then have someone who is merciless read in for me”…but since you’re looking for more…if possible, I like to spend some quality time with the script, reading, rereading, researching, and then letting things marinate a bit, before diving fully into the line learning process. Knowing the script well and learning my intentions helps me learn my lines more easily. I always want to come in on day one of rehearsal very familiar with the script, with some understanding of what I’m saying and why I’m saying it, making some “thought about” choices and then uncovering, discovering, and expanding from there. I do like to get up on my feet while learning lines and, yes, blocking does help with that process. Sometimes I record the lines of the other characters so I don’t have to ask a friend to help me run lines all the time. I can prompt myself and can even run lines while taking a walk or running errands. Other times, or in addition to that, I write my lines down. I often do this a bit later in the process. Sometimes in rehearsal, we end up paraphrasing some lines because we are thinking about so many other things. Writing my lines out or, at least, continuing to carefully read through the script helps keep me on track. The playwright chose those specific words for a specific reason, so I really try to honor their craft by saying the words they wrote. Rehearsals help me understand and learn lines in a deeper way because you are able to make choices based off of what you’re getting from the other actors. In the end, my goal is to get the text in my body in such a way that I can breathe with the words and more easily access the text in a way that feels spontaneous and natural.
I was at a talkback once at which an audience member asked the question, and one of the actors said something like, “I don’t know how I do it. It seems just as impossible to me as it probably does to you.” Which I think was her way of saying that, while all of the mechanics – just like you described – are there, it seems amazing even to the person who achieved it. How much do you find yourself accidentally locking in line readings when you’re working all alone at home?
Well, I try hard not to “lock” in a certain way of saying things, but I’m sure it happens from time to time, out of habit or if you’re thinking about a bunch of other things at rehearsal. The best way out of that “locked in” mindset is to breathe and try to be as fully in the moment as you can and to listen to what your fellow actor is saying so you can respond truthfully and naturally, as if you’re hearing it for the first time.
When I’m directing, I can tell when an actor has created a line reading all by herself – at home, alone, apart from the collaborative rehearsal process, as part of the memorization process. Sometimes I can tell it’s informed by some expectation of either audience response or that the approach will drive some particular meaning in the scene. It’s such a delicate thing, getting the words into your head, doing the homework, while still remaining open to what is created on site. And I can tell when particular line readings have worn a groove in the actor’s memory…it becomes hard to reverse them even through repeated adjustments. I’ve even watched it happen with merely technical things like mispronunciations. You know, living on stage, in many ways, is a lot harder than living in real life. I can stand here and have a conversation with you with all kinds of distractions swirling around us, and I’m the only one in charge of my words. Which makes it a lot easier.
Yes! I can imagine as a director it probably is frustrating when you’re trying to work or adjust things and an actor has consciously or subconsciously formed a habit of saying lines in a certain way. And I think you’re right, living on stage really is a great challenge. We all walk around and do a million things at once, but asking me to open a fridge and get out a Coke all while saying lines….ack! We all are trying to live as truthfully as we can in a situation, and all while using words that aren’t our own. That’s why it’s nearly other-worldly when an actor can take you to exactly where their character lives. Watching someone who has made the text a part of them is truly inspiring. Mark Rylance is a good example of someone who is so spontaneous and nuanced. He looks as if he’s making everything up on the spot. It really is such a beautiful and inspiring thing to see.
This probably seems obvious, but which is more challenging: Negotiating your way through the words in a two-hander, in which you have so much more opportunity to be active, or being one of at least a handful of people on stage, in which sometimes you’re primarily reactive, interjecting a line here and there? As we’re having this conversation, you’re rehearsing Nick Payne’s CONSTELLATIONS for Kansas City Rep, and it’s only two of you finding your way through all of those words. Tougher than, say, when you were playing Viola in TWELFTH NIGHT [for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival] last summer?
Not tougher. Just different. Performing outside certainly has its own challenges. From the heat and sweat to dodging diving bats onstage and trying to out-yell random drunks, the park is a real opportunity for an actor to work on staying in the moment and going with whatever the night gives you. But as far as lines go, I probably put in the same amount of time working on TWELFTH NIGHT. I love Shakespeare and relish text work and truly trying to unlock what the lines mean. But yes, I was off stage for a bit during that one, so I could regroup, stand in front of a fan, grab some water, and think about my next scene. CONSTELLATIONS requires you to be ready to go from the top, and you don’t get off until the ride is over. That’s why you have to know the script so well that you can confidently guide yourself and the audience through the world. Well, that’s the hope anyway. Hope, faith, and hard work, ready, set, GO!
And while you were answering that question with such wisdom, I was thinking: Mark Rylance! And trying to remember if I saw you and he play the exact same role in TWELFTH NIGHT…but, alas, he played Olivia [at Broadway’s Belasco Theater several years ago]. He’s just the best. But I’ll bet you that when he forgets a line, he makes a whole thing out of it that ends up being better than what the playwright wrote, including Shakespeare.
Oh and yes, I saw his Olivia in TWELFTH NIGHT! He looked like he was floating on air. That walk! And his Hamlet was one of the funniest Hamlets I’ve seen. I was standing there thinking, “Man, I never expected to laugh this much during HAMLET.” He found the darkness and the humor. So beautiful and interesting. And seriously, I bet he’s able to improvise in iambic pentameter.
Well, since we’re dropping names, I’ll say that I sometimes look at very successful stage actors and think that – my own shallow reduction here – their most awe-inspiring mastery is the art of remembering all of those words with all of the physical demands that can distract from remembering all of those words. I watch someone like, yes, Mark Rylance or Cherry Jones or Mary-Louise Parker or Liev Schreiber take giant risks, the sort of thing that could immediately derail another actor from the words. Was there ever a time that you were prepared to do something on stage, yet held back because you worried it could completely upset the apple cart?
Those are all great actors! Yes, taking risks is a good thing and makes for exciting theater. When I did MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE in NYC [directed by Alan Rickman in 2006 at the Minetta Lane Theater], it was just me onstage alone for an hour and a half, so perhaps I had attached certain things or movements to moments in the play to help navigate my way through it, but I wouldn’t say I backed off of things because I was afraid they would throw me. At least, not consciously. Sometimes the biggest risks come from being open to what each performance and each audience brings. My brother Carson is so good at taking big risks and just going with it. [Carson Elrod is a stage and film actor whose credits include Broadway productions of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, NOISES OFF and RECKLESS, and he recently closed Classic Stage Company’s production of David Ives’ THE LIAR.] When he’s in a play that has audience interaction, it’s so impressive. He is so at ease and can read each audience so well. That really is such a skill. I really admire his ability to trust his gut and take risks in those situations.
He’s brave. And skilled, just like his sister. Hey, do you notice that I haven’t even asked you anything about forgetting – “going up” – as that feels cruel when you’re just about to have your first audiences for CONSTELLATIONS. So I won’t ask. Instead: What’s been the hardest role to learn, if only from a memorization standpoint?
Thank you for being sensitive to that. Yes let’s avoid chatting about that pesky “going up” issue for the moment, shall we? I’d have to say MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE has been my biggest memorization challenge thus far. Being onstage for about an hour and a half alone required me to learn many pages of text. I had to chew that off in bite-sized bits so as not to be too overwhelmed at the start. I would work for a few hours after every rehearsal until I felt like I wasn’t processing things anymore. Then I’d sleep and repeat until I felt that I had a firm handle on the text. I went through it once at home every day before the actual show.
I hope you don’t feel like I’ve reduced your work to something so basic. When I was acting, I think I kind of did an internal eye-roll every time someone came up after a performance and only said something like, “How did you learn all of those lines?!” It’s maybe on that shortlist of potentially thoughtless is-that-a-compliments? But now I know exactly what I’m going to say to you when I see you after CONSTELLATIONS.
This has been fun. Always interesting to think and chat about what goes into this wild and crazy art we call acting!