Hopefully on Thursday morning I will board an American Airlines flight and be fired into the air pointing in the vague direction South Carolina. I say hopefully because my interview for a new visa only took place at the American Embassy last Wednesday and I am still waiting for my passport to be returned…I am sure that it will be alright….gulp….
In the meantime preparations for my trip are in full swing. I will be away for just over a week and in that time I will be performing four different shows: I will be taking on three major novels, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, as well as my old stalwart Mr Dickens is Coming. Mr Dickens and Nickleby are fine, they are deeply ingrained, hard-wired one may say, so they do not need too much work and besides both of those performances come at the end of my trip after a couple of free days, so there will be plenty of time to perfect them.
Great Expectations and particularly A Tale of Two Cities however are different matters, for I haven’t performed either for a long time and the words have all fallen out of order and are lying in a stagnant puddle somewhere in the bottom of my brain. For the last few weeks I have been trying to fish them out them and form them back into their respective shows.
Learning lines is an activity that for me is driven by fear. When I was a schoolboy I was in a play and at some point alone on stage I forgot my line. I hadn’t learned the play properly and I couldn’t get myself out of trouble, I simply froze. I was playing a Lordly King, so I kept acting, I strutted and swished around the stage waiting for my line to be given to me by the prompter, who ineffectually whispered from her seat in the wings. Angry at her ineptitude I made my way over to her side of the stage so that she could repeat the line, which she did equally quietly. By this time it was obvious to the audience that I had forgotten my lines, and there was a muttering and giggling from the hall. Once more the prompter delivered the line, but this time she shouted it at the top of her voice so that everyone in the audience heard it:
‘I AM LOST FOR WORDS!’
The humiliation of the laughter that filled the hall has never left me and the memory is what drives me still.
Great Expectations is the longer of the two major offerings, as it runs to two acts over a time of about two hours. The script is intense and dark and follows Pip’s journey from childhood to adulthood as he encounters the characters of Magwitch, Joe and Mrs Gargery, Biddy, Miss Havisham, Estella, Orlick, Herbert Pocket, Wemmick and his Aged Parent.
There is a lot of material in the script and it has been a major effort to form it into a recognisable shape. The one big positive for me is that I performed Great Ex quite a lot in the years after I wrote it, so the shape and form of the play is familiar at some level, even though I have to clamber down to that level!
My line learning technique relies on being alone and having space to pace around, either in our garden, a park, or in the house in the case of inclement weather. I start with a line, which I read from my script, for example:
‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in. For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London. It was passed midnight when I crossed London Bridge.’
Once I have read it a couple of times I start with the first words again, this time not looking at the script: ‘All done. All Gone. So much was done and gone’ I go back repeat it over and over again, and when it flows I check the script and recite the next bit: ‘that when I was out at the gate the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.’
Repeat, repeat, something doesn’t sound right, and maybe I am saying ‘when I went outdoors’, instead of ‘when I was out at the gate’ Repeat. Repeat, then add it to the first line: ‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in.’ Repeat. Repeat, before adding the next section.
‘For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London’ Repeat. repeat. Correct. Repeat. Repeat. add to previous section:
‘All done. All gone. So much was done and gone, that when I went out out at the gate, the light of the day seemed a darker colour than when I went in. For a while I hid myself in the lanes and by-paths, and then struck off to walk all the way to London.’
This way I just piece little sections together and the pages drift by until I get to the end of a scene or an act, each of which then becomes part of the larger whole, or if things are not going well, the larger hole.
Although there are not specific ‘scenes’ the script has naturally fallen into little self-contained chunks and in the first act they work like this: Magwitch and Pip on the marshes, Pip with Joe and Mrs Joe in the forge, back on the marshes with Magwitch, the Christmas party in the forge leading to the discovery of the two convicts, and so on. A number of little scenes create a larger one (the 4 sections above take me to the end of a major section), so as I learn lines I have a whole series of little targets or achievements to aim for: little scenes, larger scenes and an entire act. I don’t know if this is a recognised technique or if any other actors use the same system, but it works for me.
When I had worked my way through Great Expectations it was time to get on with A Tale of Two Cities and the whole process started again. This time I did not have such a depth of knowledge as I have only performed the show twice, the last time being over a year ago. But once again I started working in sections, going back doing it again, checking the script and persevering until things were settled.
Sometimes when I go back to a script I find that passages that I originally found really difficult to commit to memory suddenly become easy, but this time that didn’t happen and the difficult bits in A Tale of Two Cities were still difficult!
Eventually I got to the end and then I thought that I would try Great Expectations again and guess what? I really struggled with it, and passages that had been flowing a couple of days before now were completely alien to me again. There was nothing for it but to go back to referring to the script to correct errors. Once again I started to work through to the end of each mini section, each major section and each act and when that is done it will be back to A Tale of two Cities and no doubt those words will have scrambled themselves up as well.
The funny thing is by this time next week all of the work will be over, for I am performing Great Expectations on Friday and Saturday and A Tale of Two Cities on Sunday.
As I close up with ‘It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known’ and, hopefully, the audience applauds, the question will be ‘was all that time, effort and heartache be worth it? Will the morose demeanour that the family have to put up with be worth it? Will the fear and the spectre of humiliation have been worth it?’
Of course the answer will be ‘yes’ Theatre and performance is a highly addictive drug and I just keep coming back for more however painful the process may be.
I will be performing Great Expectations at The Spinning Jenny in Greer, South Carolina on Friday at 8pm
I will be performing the same show at Byers’ Choice in Chalfont PA on Saturday at 3.30 pm
I will be performing A Tale of Two Cities at the Broad Street United Methodist Church on Sunday at 2pm.