Running Lines

by Jacob Coakley

Stage Directions editor--and line coach--Jacob Coakley
Stage Directions editor--and line coach--Jacob Coakley
Yes, there are a lot of words. No, I’m not allowed to make them up.

My wife was recently cast in a play. We were telling this to a friend who has nothing at all to do with the theatre and his first reaction was: “How do you memorize all those lines?” All I could do was laugh. Everything else an actor does: building an interior life of a character, the physicalization of that character, bringing that character to emotional life, not to mention speaking clearly and intelligibly, finding the light, the quick changes, all of it—and the first question out of everyone’s mouth is always “How do you memorize all those lines?”

I also laugh because the answer is always the same: exactly the way you think. There’s no trick—at least not for me. There’s just a lot of repetition. Sometimes there’s physical activity to help the memorization. When I performed Israel Horowitz’s Spared I spent a great deal of time in a dance studio self-choreographing a little movement for each line. It’s a one-man show that lasts for around an hour, if memory serves, and easily the longest thing I ever had to memorize. I had an hour-long series of moves that I would perform as I learned my lines—which all disappeared during the show because the play calls for the actor to sit in a chair the whole time. Ultimately, though, it was still just repetition.

But that was a long, long time ago. In the interim I have transitioned off the stage, and am more interested in writing the lines as opposed to reading them. Still, when a loved one has a lot of lines and little time to memorize them in, you step up. So the past few nights have been spent reading cues to my wife. Generally I start off very straight-laced, just reading the lines in as neutral a tone as I can. I have no idea how the other actors are interpreting them, and I have no idea how any interpretation will change during rehearsal. But it’s hard to stay detached when your partner is getting into things, and gradually ramping up her inflection as she gets more and more into character. It’s fun to respond in kind, start goofing off, and try acting out all the parts, not just the cue lines.

And if her sense of excitement and fun weren’t enough to break me out of my detached pose, the repetition is. Read a scene over four or five times and you’ve just got to try it out differently. I’m not sure how much it helps my wife for me to be reading all the other parts in her script in the voices of different cartoon characters—but it’s a blast for me.

So next time anyone asks me how to memorize all those lines, I’m ready. I just hope they’re up to hearing the answer in voices from The Simpsons.