Ask any actor who has done time in repertory theatre what is the most frequently asked question by keen theatre-goers and I’d wager the answer would be:
“How do you learn the lines?”
I might have answered “with difficulty“, after drying on my first line (saying “Grace”) as the Vicar in Murder at the Vicarage on opening night at Salisbury Playhouse in the mid-60s .
It’s the nuts and bolts of the job–but never gets any easier.
Telly Savalas as Kojak had his lines taped all over the set and even–hard to believe–to the other actors’ foreheads!
Even if I’d been able to read them without my glasses, I couldn’t be shamed into that!
Samuel West‘s contribution to this article in The Guardian recently–actors’ advice to fellow actors–reminded me of the run-up to filming my two short scenes in the new adaptation of POLDARK*.
To anyone learning lines for a day’s filming where there is NO rehearsal, he says:
Learn your lines with a friend the night before filming. Say them looking into your friend’s eyes. Your friend will be distracting you. You will think you know the scene because you can do it looking at the floor, but human contact is distracting – and you want there to be human contact when you film the scene.
Learning the night before? I’ve always needed time for lines to settle and stick (slow study it’s called in the trade)–but I know what he means.
Meredith volunteered to hear my lines weeks before my first day’s shoot for POLDARK and eventually I took up her offer.
I’d been pounding them into my reluctant brain on my daily walk for weeks.
She suggested, like Samuel West, that I aimed them directly at her.
But for a while I was unwilling to engage with her spirited rendition of Captain Poldark–and continued doing exactly what Samuel West warns against–saying the lines, very convincingly, to nowhere in particular–sometimes to the floor.
In the end, I did engage. It was, as Sam says, usefully distracting–good preparation for when I had to project them across the chasm of the crowded, noisy courtroom.
Meredith watched the shooting of the trial of Jim Carter [Me-lud presiding!] on a monitor in a freezing anti-room of the medieval hall where we were filming.
In a pause while they were re-setting the lights she popped outside for a coffee to warm herself up.
There was Aidan Turner (aka Ross Poldark)…
…pacing up and down, going through his lines.
They hadn’t formally met at this point.
So as not distract him, she discreetly tucked herself into a corner with her coffee.
Suddenly, becoming aware that there was just the two of them, he confided:
“This scene is important and I want to get it right!”
“I know it well,” she said. “I rehearsed the lines over and over with Robin–playing YOU!”
Aidan roared with laughter.
Meredith sensibly didn’t offer to hear his lines….
*The new adaptation of Winston Graham’s POLDARK saga is being produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC and PBS’ Masterpiece in the USA, to be broadcast next year.