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Veuve Cliquot

It is New Years Eve. Soon to be 2018. Tonight I sit with a glass of Veuve Cliquot, ready to contemplate the year ahead, and to mull over some of the things that have rattled around in my brain recently.

What is on my mind right now is a passage in Maria Aitken’s book, Style: Acting in High Comedy.

“I know I am breaking an ancient taboo when I say this, but never mind: you can’t begin to act until you know your lines. The more reflexive they become, the more power you have over them. It’s absolute nonsense to claim that by learning them you get stuck with an early interpretation and can’t change it. The real problem is that one has no flexibility when one is flailing around trying to remember lines. My advice coincides with Noel Coward’s—come to rehearsal knowing every word, then you can use the time productively. Actors have abetted a conspiracy of laziness by finding imaginary drawbacks to arriving word perfect. If you want to achieve naturalism, a total command of the text is the only route—and learning the lines is the easiest part of the whole discipline.”

I have serious concerns with this statement. Ms. Aitken seems to have conflated two separate aspects of the process of line-learning: what do I need to know before I can start memorizing, and, at what stage of rehearsal is it essential to be off-book? As a working professional with many years of experience under her belt, Ms. Aitken has knowledge of vocabulary, heightened text, and style that a young theatre student might not have. Memorizing from a cold start is one thing for her, and quite another for the student. Since a large part of the audience for Ms. Aitken’s book is theatre students, I believe she should be more sensitive to and aware of their particular needs and process.

To be clear, I absolutely agree that rehearsal does not really start to fly until the actors are off book. The sooner they are free to work with the words at their finger-tips, the better. But the journey to that point is a challenging one. There is a lot of hard work involved, and it has nothing to do with ‘laziness’.

I am sure everyone would agree that there is absolutely no point in memorizing something you do not understand. Some of the work needed for clarification will fall to the actor to prepare in advance, and some of it will take place during the table work phase of rehearsal.

Further complicating this situation is the fact that the actors’ union in this country (CAEA) has determined that line learning is part of a paid contract and actors cannot be asked to memorize their lines before the first rehearsal, unless they are paid to do so [Rehearsal Conditions 24.03 Standard (M)]. But perhaps things are different in the UK? I have never heard of a professional theatre company paying actors to learn their lines before the first rehearsal (and if they do it is at their own expense).

In any case, in my opinion, theatre students reading Ms. Aitken’s book are being misled.


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