Posted in English 1103, Theatre, Writing

ENG 1103: Another Way with Words

Helga (Jane Lucas) and Jozephina (Cass Weston) in the Creative Greensboro production of The Wolves of Ravensbruk (2022).

The essay that follows is the literacy narrative that I wrote as a model for you.


Another Way with Words

What do a Nazi prison guard, a medieval abbess, a Mexican maid, and a seventy-two-year-old bag lady have in common? They’re all character roles that I’ve played on stage. Though acting is one of my favorite pastimes, each new role is a source of anxiety. I am comfortable on stage, but backstage, as I prepare to enter, is another story.  Preparing for my entrances as María, the Mexican maid, in Glorious! were some of the most nerve-wracking moments of my stage career. I remember vividly standing backstage holding a large tray with a tea pot, two teacups, a slice of cake, napkins, and silverware. As I held the tray, my hands began to sweat, and I worried not only that the tray might slip out of my hands but also that the words I was supposed to speak might slip from my mind.

Robert (David Ingle) and Berthe (Jane Lucas) in The Green Room’s production of Boeing Boeing (2017). / Ken Burns

Though the fear of forgetting my lines is always with me backstage, that fear was heightened when I played María because her lines were all in Spanish. The challenge inherent in learning lines was compounded by the cognitive shift required of learning them as a non-native speaker. When I say kitchen, in my mind I see a kitchen, but when I say cocina, I do not. As María, for the first time, I wasn’t visualizing my lines. Instead, I was memorizing a series of unfamiliar sounds. I knew their English translation, but I couldn’t link the signs to the signifiers, not the way I could in English.

Marie (Nikkita Gibson) and Abbess Agatha (Jane Lucas) in Hickory Community Theatre’s production of Incorruptible (2016) / Ken Burns

Preparing to play María meant increasing the hours I devote to my lines, including the practices of writing my lines on note cards, recording my lines and their cues, and writing my lines over and over in my theatre journal. As one of my first steps in the line-learning process, I type my lines and paste them onto three-by-five note cards. On the back of each note card, I write my cues in pencil. I start by memorizing the lines on the first card, usually four or five. And once I’ve learned those, I memorize the ones on the second card, and so on. Learning my cues as well my lines enables me to follow my partner’s words on stage even if he or she jumps ahead by dropping a line.

Arthur (Peter Bost) and Lady Boyle (Jane Lucas) in Hickory Community Theatre’s production of Superior Donuts (2016) / Ken Burns

In addition to putting my lines and cues on notecards, I record them with a voice recorder app on my phone. Listening to myself as I drive to rehearsal further helps me to learn the words. Along with studying my notecards and listening to my recorded lines, I write my lines over and over in my theatre notebook, the same way that as a student I would recopy my class notes as a way of studying for a test.

Now as I find myself studying lines for yet another play, one staged by Goodly Frame theatre company, I am reminded of the importance of trusting the process. I will not learn my lines as quickly as I would like to, and waiting backstage to say them will always be nerve-wracking, but becoming another person on stage remains pure joy. For me as a writer, acting is another way of working with words, a process of transporting them from the page to the stage and transforming the language into the utterances of a living, breathing character—someone who isn’t me but in whom I can “live truthfully,” as the acting teacher Sanford Meisner would say, “under the given imaginary circumstances.”

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