It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Runnin’ on Empty

Dave Sikula is running on empty… but the blog is still full.

There comes a time in the life of every actor when the lines just won’t stick. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a subconscious dislike of the material, maybe it’s a lack of time, maybe it’s just being tired.

I’m currently in rehearsal for a show – and am trying not to succumb to the awesome reality that we open in a week – and I’m having a horrific time remembering my lines. (The blocking is another issue; the stage manager’s frustration at me is palpable.) It’s not the material – which is very good indeed – so the other factors must be (and indeed are) in play.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before – but am just too damn lazy to check – in my youth, learning lines was simplicity itself. I could pretty much read through a page, learn it more-or-less photographically, and have it down in no time at all. It’d take maybe a couple of hours to learn even the longest script. As I’ve grown older, though, either my brain is full or (more likely) just old and unwilling to take on new knowledge which it knows it will need only temporarily. It’s not that this old dog can’t learn new tricks – I just started a new job (this will come up again in a moment, so consider this foreshadowing) and am having no trouble learning the things I’ll need to do for there. But I’ve been looking at this script for weeks and having the damnedest time getting the dialogue to stay in my head.

Lack of time? Well, I’ve got time to write this – and don’t think I’m not thinking “Y’know, I really should be going over my lines …” as I type. (I can feel my stage manager sending me thought waves compelling me to do so.) But with the new job? Well, I get up, head off to the salt mine, toil for eight hours, battle traffic to get to rehearsal, do that work, come home, finally get a bite to eat at 11 pm or so, watch some television (usually all I have time for is Letterman, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert), and, in the twinkling of an eye, it’s 2:30 and I’ve got to go to bed in order to start the cycle all over.

So that brings us to the “too tired” part of our list. If I’m lucky, I’ll get six, maybe six-and-a-half hours tonight, which is nowhere near enough for a boy my age. Even if I try to squeeze in the lines (in more than one sense), as I close my eyes to try to keep from cheating and looking at the page, I find myself drifting off to Dreamland.

And, yet, somehow (including disappearing at the office in order to find someplace to run lines), I’ve found myself able to learn, oh, a good 70-80% of my lines. I probably know them all well enough to paraphrase my way through the script, but given that the director is also the writer, he’d probably notice (yet another danger of having writers direct their own scripts; they know the text too well for the actors to fake it …).

Now, fortunately, our next real rehearsal isn’t for a few days, so I’ll have a wee bit of extra time to keep learning – if I don’t fall asleep. Unfortunately, that next “real rehearsal” will be our first tech. In the larger sense, I’ve got a week and I know I’ll be there (after a train wreck of a rehearsal just three nights ago, I knew that that was the worst is was going to be – and if I make the same progress in the next three days that I made the previous three, I may well know everyone’s lines …).

I’ve never missed the deadline – sure, I’ve gone up or gotten lost (who hasn’t?). But I’ve never been completely at a loss. Well, there was that one performance of “Private Lives” when I jumped seven pages. My scene partner gave me one of the most single most panicked looks I’ve ever seen on a stage. I realized what I’d done and she gave me a cue that put us back on track. We looped back to where I’d gone wrong, skipped over the dialogue I’d delivered about ten minutes previous, and moved on. And there was the five-character musical I did when the entire cast went up simultaneously. None of us had the least idea where we were.

Fortunately, it was the one moment in the show – the pretty dreadful “Whispers on the Wind” (never heard of it? Wish I hadn’t …) – where it was slow and lyrical. After about an hour – well, more like 45 seconds – someone said something that sparked someone else to say something else, which sparked something else, and pretty soon, we were back on track.

In neither case, the audience never noticed a thing. They never do.

Well, occasionally they do; like the performance of “Anything Goes” that was interrupted by a dog wandering onto the stage. That they noticed. But going up? Mistakes in blocking or business not coming off as planned? Nah.

So the short version of all of the above – now he tells us! – is simple. It’s never too early to start learning your lines. It’s not possible to get too much sleep. (I’m reminded of Paula Poundstone’s line about baby-sitting and the difficulty of trying to put her charges to bed: “Can you imagine there was ever a time in your life when you didn’t want to sleep?”) And most importantly, while you young whippersnappers may laugh now at the possibility of having trouble learning lines, trust me; your time will come.

Most of you probably don’t remember Johnny Carson anymore, or know him only vaguely, but I remember how he used to make a lot of monologue jokes about Forest Lawn cemetery. Then one day, he got a note from the folks who ran Forest Lawn. It read, “Just remember, Mr. Carson. We will have the last laugh …”

One last note: I saw “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep this week and can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyone who’s done Durang knows how deceptively difficult he is to do. This cast makes the impossible look easy; hitting all the right notes and balancing the Chekhovian laughs with a surprisingly touching ending. I was actually a little misty-eyed as it ended (though I didn’t stand, you can rest assured). By all mean, go see it.

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