Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Laurie Jameson (Jill Roberts) and Nancy Gordon (Jane Lucas) / Ashley Potter Photography

In Nancy Gordon’s first scene in Third, she sits on a park bench outside the college bookstore and tells her friend and colleague Laurie Jameson how a boy she dated her freshman year taught her that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” scans exactly to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Nancy begins to sing the lines and Laurie joins in. Singing heartily, so caught up in the fun of it, Laurie doesn’t notice at first that Nancy has stopped singing. She can’t repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep,” because she doesn’t know whether she has miles to go. Soon she will undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The early drafts of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, didn’t include Nancy. Three years ago as I prepared to play her, I learned  that when Wasserstein added her as a friend for Laurie, she was adding an autobiographical character, a cancer survivor who would live on after Wasserstein died,  just three months after Third opened in New York in October 2005.

7/8 gone for "Third"

7/8 gone for “Third”

Whenever the prospect of playing Nancy frightened me–which it did, often–I reminded myself of Wasserstein’s courage and how creating Nancy sustained her as her health declined. What an honor and a privilege it was to tread the boards in Nancy’s shoes.

As I reflect on Foothills Performing Arts’ production of Third, on the third anniversary of its opening, I remain grateful for director Mark Shell’s artistic vision and faith in me, and for the stellar cast and crew: Jill Roberts, Justin Thomas, Carla Robinson, David Kerley, Dustin Greene, Amber Ellis Biecker, Tony Hendrix, Heather Lee Hendrix, Aleesha Hendrix, Jared Smith, and Josh Wolfe.

 

Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor

Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor

Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

When Stephanie Lindsay, who played Karla in the recent LR Playmakers’ production of Wonder of the World, first visited class on February 6, the students had not begun drafting their analyses of the play and opening night was more than a week away. Today when Lindsay returned for a follow-up visit, the students had submitted their revisions of their papers and many had also seen one of the performances of the show. After all of the students projected their analyses-turned-blog posts on the big screen and spoke briefly about the focus of their writing, Lindsay led them in a discussion that traced the journey of the play from page  to stage.

Along with her insightful remarks regarding the actors’ and the director’s roles in bringing the characters to life, Lindsay reflected on the vital opportunity that live theatre offers us in the digital age: the experience of sharing stories together face to face in real time in an increasingly fragmented culture.

thank-you-card-4As Lindsay spoke, my thoughts turned to the readings that I selected for the course, ones that we can see performed on stage or that we can see addressed by the visiting writers who wrote them. In a course titled Critical Thinking and Writing, virtually any texts could serve as our subjects of inquiry. But studying plays produced at Lenoir-Rhyne and books written by the university’s visiting writers creates opportunities for face-to-face, real-time experiences that the study of other texts doesn’t allow.

Thank you, Stephanie Lindsay, for bringing Karla to life, both on the stage and in the classroom, and thank you for your observations on live theatre and stage craft. And thanks also to Kiyah and Mallory for producing cards to express our gratitude.

 

David Lindsay-Abaire’s farce Wonder of the World chronicles Cass Harris’ search for meaning as she embarks on a new life in Niagara after discovering that her husband of seven years, Kip, has harbored a secret sexual perversion. Once she reaches her destination, she finds that life away from Kip is no honeymoon either but a series of encounters with an assortment of eccentrics grappling with their own losses.

For Cass, the loss is one of innocence. No longer innocent of the knowledge of her husband’s bizarre fetish, she ww-script-notesstruggles to come to terms with it. Though Cass chooses to start a new life, she continues to see the world through the lens of the ninth-grade teaching job that she leaves behind (along with Kip), equating her mistake of marriage to a mathematical miscalculation. As she explains to Kip: “Look, I agreed to marry you based on what I knew to be true. Kip equals X. X will make me happy. Everything added up. Seven years later I find out that you’re not X at all, you’re Z. And if you’re Z, then I did the math wrong” (1.1). Ever the math teacher, Cass perceives the world as a series of signs with determinate meaning, a tendency that seems to compound the difficulty of her quest. On the bus to Niagara, where Cass adopts fellow traveler Lois Coleman as her sidekick, Cass continues to think in terms of numbers, measuring her old life as “463 road signs behind me” (1.2). Though she eventually loses track of the signs, she remains focused on her numbered to-do list, which includes becoming a contestant on The Newlywed Game, a show that turns couples’ compatibility into a numbers game.

Unlike Cass, her husband, Kip, does not seek meaning in numbers. When Karla and Glen (partners in marriage as well as private investigation), confide to Lois that Kip has hired them to track down Cass, Glen notes that Kip “[s]tarted to put two and two together” (1.7). For Kip, “started” is the operative term. He is not a numbers man. The proof that he offers of their undying love—including the ring they found, “the sign,” as Kip a calls it (2.1) —is insubstantial evidence in the eyes of Cass. Their sign systems aren’t the same; they speak different languages. For Kip, numbers games are “crass and divisive” (1.2).

When couples counselor Janie, clad in a clown suit, leads Cass and her cohort of misfits through a Newlywed-style ww-draft-1therapy session, Cass says that “[i]t’s not just a game! Things have meaning. Or at least they should” (2.3). Her emphasis on “should” indicates that she has embraced the concept that meaning may be indeterminate. But neither she nor the other characters can leave numbers behind, not altogether. After Captain Mike, Kip’s rival for Cass’ affection, accidentally shoots himself, rather than reflecting on his death, the characters attempt to quantify fears as they quibble over which is number one: being alone, public speaking, or needles (2.3).

Only Karla seems to yield to the idea that answers may elude us. As she observes to Lois: “I don’t even think about my marriage anymore. Why this, why that? I have no idea how it works, and that’s fine by me. It’s like Stonehenge, an unknowable mystery that the world has come to accept” (2.4).

ww-draft-2The final scene on the river leaves the audience, along with Cass and Lois, in a holding pattern. What happens remains unclear. The ambiguity comes at a risk; it may try the patience of audience members who find the play’s farcical humor too ridiculous or contrived, or as New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote “forced rather than organic.” For others, though, the grotesqueness of Cass’ Niagara Land may serve as an apt metaphor for our own absurd political terrain with its crass and divisive stream of fake news and alternative facts. Perhaps asking “[w]hen does the clarity come?” (2.4) and persisting in our quest for it will sustain us, like Cass and Lois, as we find ourselves over a barrel.

Works Cited

Brantley, Ben. “Setting Forth, the Wind in Her Sails.” Review of Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay- Abaire, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 18 Jan.  2017.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Wonder of the World. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Back in February, when I first curled up with the script of Incorruptiblethe farce I’d just been cast in and recently performed in—I was struck by the author’s note: “This sort of thing really happened” (6). The “sort of thing” that playwright Michael Hollinger was referring to was the theft and sale of relics in the Middle Ages, not just the actual bones of saints, martyrs, and biblical figures but also random bones passed off as sacred.

It didn’t surprise me that such theft and fraud took place, but I’d never given much thought to medieval relics—or to the churches of the Middles Ages, for that matter. The thought of medieval monks stealing relics intrigued me though, and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it made sense. If sacred bones were valuable centuries before the science of DNA extraction, then who could say that any given relics—from the Latin reliquiae, literally things left behind—weren’t the veritable bones of Saint Paul or Mary Magdalene?

My interest in the facts behind the farce along with my commitment to the practice of completing assignments with my students led me here. For their final paper of the semester, I asked my students to annotate sources, a minimum of three, on a subject of interest to them, and to introduce their bibliography with a short essay that addresses their interest in the subject. In other words: What drives your research? In my case, it’s “dem bones,” the relics of the Middle Ages (and the plastic versions that I’ve been circling on stage).

As I researched medieval relics, I was reminded over and over of lines from the play. I had always associated the medieval churches of Europe with cathedrals and palaces, but I learned from my research that in fact the “centers of religion and cultural life [in the Middle Ages] were not cathedrals or palaces but rather rural monasteries” (Geary 45). As I read those words, I recalled Brother Martin’s dismissal of the “second rate” convent in Bernay “run by a bunch of backwoods nuns” (16) and the words of my character, Agatha, Abbess of Bernay, echoing Martin with her dismissal of her brother’s monastery: “What’s in Priseaux, I said, but a second-rate monastery run by a bunch of backwoods monks?” (67).

Whether second-rate or backwoods, the monks of the rural monasteries at the heart of medieval life depended on the revenue generated by relics. And they “viewed theft as an appropriate means of relic acquisition” (Geary 108), rationalizing and justifying theft and fraud as Charles, the abbot, and Martin do when Felix reminds them that they didn’t renounce the world to become as corrupt as the merchant class, that they “are men of the noblest ideals” (36):

MARTIN. And if we fail in that mission, will it matter how noble we were? (To Charles). There’s a shoemaker’s family that won’t get supper tonight because of our high ideals. I turned away fourteen others today; is this the ideal of Christian charity?

CHARLES. Martin’s right. We’re on the precipice, Felix. The abyss opens at our feet. If, somehow, by . . . soiling our hands just a bit, we can make it to the other side, mightn’t that justify our compromise? (36-37)

The bone candy before I bagged it

The bone candy before I bagged it

The bibliography that follows includes three sources: Incorruptible, the play that prompted my research, Furta Sacra, a book-length study of relic theft in the central Middle Ages, and Holy Bones, Holy Dust, the first comprehensive history of relics in medieval Europe, which includes a chapter devoted to incorruptibles, the relics that give Hollinger’s play its name. An incorruptible, as Charles says, is “[a] saint so holy its body refuses to decay” (52).

If I were a historian, or an anthropologist, or a theologian, this work of mine might lead to an in-depth study of medieval relics. Since I’m none of those things, it’s unlikely that I’ll return to “dem bones” as a subject of writing or research. Still, it’s been a valuable journey, one that informed every trip back to Priseaux, as I stood onstage as Abbess Agatha, believing that I’d bought the bones of Saint Foy “out from under” my sibling rival (68).

Annotated Bibliography

Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.

A history of relic veneration in medieval Europe, Holy Bones, Holy Dust chronicles the roles of saints’ cults and miraculous interventions from the fall of the Roman Empire to Reformation. Freeman traces the growth in the popularity of relics as they proliferated in various forms. The most sought after were intact bodies and body parts (severed head and limbs), and detritus (fingernails, blood, and hair). Some were placed in ornate reliquaries and processed through towns, drawing pilgrims seeking miracles and remission of sins.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton UP. Rev. ed. 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 April 2016.

To acquire the relics of saints, medieval monks ransacked tombs, greedy merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers dredged the Roman catacombs. Patrick Geary’s study of the medieval tradition of sacra furta (or holy theft) narratives, explores how hagiographers’ accounts of the thefts served to rationalize and justify them in a time, when as Geary observes, “the prosperity of a religious community was a fragile luxury” and “the acquisition of relics was a real necessity” (57).

Hollinger, Michael. Incorruptible. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002. Print.

Set in thirteenth-century France, Hollinger’s farce centers on the financially-struggling monastery of Priseaux, whose patron saint hasn’t performed a miracle in a dozen years. After one of the young monks, Felix, returns from his travels to report that their own St. Foy has been sold to a rival convent in Bernay, the monks confront the one-eyed travelling minstrel who fits the description of the relic-monger. The minstrel, Jack, tells the monks that he did indeed sell bones to the convent, but they were not St. Foy—as he had told the abbess they were—but rather they were simply the bones of a pig farmer. Jack’s confession and subsequent observations about the potential value of fraudulent relics lead the monks of Priseaux to hatch their own money-making scheme.

One-hundred and seventy-nine words (29 lines) and the thousands that inform them.

One-hundred and seventy-nine words (29 lines) and the thousands that inform them.

When I was fourteen years old and first saw Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man as a teleplay on ABC, the lack of makeup and prosthetics made no sense to me. If you could make Joseph Merrick look monstrous—as John Hurt did in David Lynch’s film—then why wouldn’t you? Only much later would I understand that Pomerance was more concerned with the grotesqueness of British imperialism and Victorian society, which is why his Merrick doesn’t look like Lynch’s.

Though I didn’t comprehend the playwright’s vision at the time, I kept watching because I had to know what happened next—what would transpire between Merrick and Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends him and whom Merrick asks to be his mistress? Mrs. Kendal wouldn’t consent; that I knew, but I also knew that she had grown to care for Merrick and was saddened by the knowledge that his hideous deformities would prevent him from experiencing physical intimacy of any kind, much less sexual intercourse. As I watched Mrs. Kendal speak to Merrick, I realized that no matter what I secretly thought of my awkward adolescent self, that I would never be perceived as the freak that Merrick was. That one day I would love and be loved. And when Mrs. Kendal tells Merrick that she has seen photographs of him—of his naked body, taken for display at lectures—and starts to undress so that he can see her breasts, I knew that I was witnessing something that was considered scandalous but that was, in fact, morally just.

Those moments between Merrick and Kendal that now replay so vividly in my mind mark a moment in my moral education. For decades they’d continued to dwell in some far corner of my imagination, waiting to rise to my consciousness again, as they did recently when I had the opportunity to act in a local production of The Elephant Man. When I was cast in the show, I seized the chance not only as an opportunity to perform but also as an occasion to research Joseph Merrick so that my work on stage would be informed by my study of his life.

The bibliography that follows includes the play, itself—which first stirred my interest in Merrick—the memoir of his doctor, Frederick Treves, and two book-length studies that revise and expand Merrick’s story: Ashley Montagu’s exploration of his psyche, The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity; and the first comprehensive biography of Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man.

Though Treves aimed to tell Merrick’s story as accurately as possible, as Montagu notes, “his attempt to reconstruct Merrick’s past was to a great extent erroneous” (69). Nevertheless, his memoir still offers readers what no other writing about Merrick can: a look at him through the eyes of his own doctor. And as Michael Howell and Peter Ford observe in their biography: “Of all of Treves’ writings, ‘The Elephant Man’ is undoubtedly the one that will continue to be read long after the others are forgotten” (164).

Whether these annotations will serve as preliminary writing for a larger project, I cannot say. But I can say that as I have stepped on stage to enter Merrick’s world, I have carried with me what I’ve learned.

Annotated Bibliography

Howell, Michael and Peter Ford. The True History of the Elephant Man. 1980. New York: Skyhorse, 2010. Print.

The first comprehensive biography of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, The True History of the Elephant Man, co-written by physician Michael Howell and editor and writer Peter Ford, chronicles the life of Merrick, beginning with his initial encounter with Frederick Treves, at the storefront across from the London Hospital in 1884, then turning back to his birth in Leicester in 1862. Howell and Ford document the death of Merrick’s mother, Mary Jane Merrick, née Potterton, from pneumonia in 1873, his years of labor at the Leicester Union Workhouse, his exhibition—by showmen Sam Torr, Tom Noonan, and Sam Roper—and his final years in residence at the London Hospital under the care of surgeon Frederick Treves.

Howell and Ford’s research reveals that Merrick chose not to disclose to Treves essential details about his family background, namely that his mother and his sister, Marion Eliza, were both “crippled” (42, 46), and they clarify that Treves’ error regarding Merrick’s first name was intentional, citing the manuscript of Treves’ memoir in which he crossed out “Joseph” and replaced it with “John.”

The True History of the Elephant Man also addresses the question of Merrick’s condition—with neurofibromatosis and Proteus syndrome as the prevailing diagnoses—noting that to the frustration of future researchers, the skin samples of Merrick’s preserved at the London Hospital dried out when the hospital staff was evacuated during World War II. Dry rot in the hospital, a consequence of damage from the bombings, affected the specimens, which were subsequently burned.

Montagu, Ashley. The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity. 1971. Lafayette: Acadian, 2001. Print.

In The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, anthropologist Ashley Montagu explores how Joseph Merrick developed a healthy personality despite the “reality of his physical hideousness” and the “cruelly lacerating expressions of horror and revulsion by all who beheld him” (100). With chapters devoted to Merrick’s doctor, Frederick Treves, and the London Hospital, as well as chapters on maternal love and personality development, Montagu’s study provides both historical and psychological context for Merrick’s story.

Observing that Treve’s two-paragraph account of Merrick’s early years seems “utterly incompatible with [his] loveable personality” (85), Montagu asserts that Merrick was not abandoned by his mother as Treves suggests in his memoir. In the third edition, published in 1996, Montagu notes that his views on Merrick’s mother were confirmed by Michael Howard and Peter Ford in The True History of the Elephant Man.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. Print.

Though its time frame corresponds with that of Frederick Treves’ memoir of Joseph “John” Merrick, Bernard Pomerance’s play departs from Treves’ account, reimagining the last four years of Merrick’s life in twenty-one short scenes. Throughout the play, the actor portraying Merrick wears no makeup or prosthetics to alter his appearance, a stipulation of Pomerance’s introductory note, where he asserts that any attempt to reproduce the Elephant Man’s grotesque physical deformities would be both “counterproductive” and “distracting” (v).  Pomerance fashions a fictional relationship between Merrick and the actress Madge Kendal (who raised funds for Merrick’s care and arranged for him to attend the theatre but never met him), employs dream sequences to explore the unconscious of Merrick and Treves, and uses as a central metaphor Merrick’s building of a cardboard model of St. Philip’s Church, a model he did in fact construct with his one good hand during his stay at the London Hospital.

Treves, Frederick. “The Elephant Man.” The Elephant Man and Other Reminisces. London: Cassel, 1923. 1-37. Print.

Frederick Treves’ memoir “The Elephant Man” chronicles the final years in the life of Joseph “John” Carey Merrick, the grotesquely deformed man who came under the care of Treves two years after the doctor examined Merrick at the London Hospital.

Beginning in 1884 with Treves first encounter with Merrick as a freak-show attraction at a storefront across from the hospital, the narrative details Treves’ plan for Merrick to be transported across the street for examination—under his cloak and hat, lest he be mobbed or beaten—Treves’ reunion with Merrick after his dismissal from a traveling show in Belgium, and Merrick’s subsequent residence at the London Hospital, where he lived until his death in April 1890.

 

Booklet for the 2015 Campus Celebration of Academic Excellence

Booklet for Lenoir-Rhyne’s 2015 Campus Celebration of Academic Excellence

. . . I was rehearsing to perform one as well. Tuesday, April 28, as eight of my students prepared to perform their collaborative one-acts for SOURCE, Lenoir-Rhyne‘s Symposium on University Research and Creative Expression, I was preparing to perform a script of a different sort, one that I’d co-written with two other members of the Board of Directors for the community theatre group Foothills Performing Arts.

Though I had seen the students’ plays once, in class, I wish that I could have seen their encore performances at SOURCE. I had no idea that I would have a schedule conflict, much less one of such coincidence. I had designed my students’ genre assignments–including the one for their collaborative one-act plays–in early January, before the semester began, with no way of knowing that a month later, organizers of the volunteer celebration for Caldwell Hospice and Palliative Care would ask Foothills Performing Arts to provide the entertainment for their banquet in April. They wanted a skit about the importance of volunteering. So I volunteered, along with Michelle and Chrystal.

Writing an eight- to ten-minute skit is no eight- to ten-minute task. It requires hours and hours of work, and in our case that included finding a way to to honor the work of volunteers who help people during their most difficult hours. We would be there to entertain them, not to remind them of that, though. And volunteering is all about help and support, the very antithesis of the tension and conflict essential to drama and to all storytelling. And then there was the theme for the banquet, elegant safari. How do you work the idea of volunteering into a safari, an elegant safari?

With all of that in mind, I drafted the first pages of the script that Michelle and Chrystal and I developed into a five-page meta-play about writing a script, one that broke the fourth wall with this sequence:

Elegant Safari

Standing with eyes closed behind my collaborators, Michelle Holman (left) and Chrystal Hass (right).

JANE: But we don’t have a story, or rather this is the story. What we have is a skit about not-having-a-skit.

CHRYSTAL: What we have is writers in desperate need of help. (SHE pulls binoculars from the bag.)

MICHELLE: We could get volunteers.

JANE: How can we get volunteers? We can’t just snap our fingers and suddenly have a roomful of volunteers . . .

(JANE, MICHELLE, and CHRYSTAL exchange glances.)

CHRYSTAL: Then again . . .

MICHELLE: It’s worth a try.

The process of collaboration was worth a try as well. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity, in part because it’s my practice to do what I ask of my students, including writing along side of them, composing the same assignments that I require them to write. But when I wrote a one-scene play in March as a model for theirs, it wasn’t the product of collaboration. I couldn’t show them the script I could show them now–one that I’ll offer to my students as a model in semesters to come.

 

Act 1: Scene 3 lines: 458 words

Nancy Gordon’s lines, Act I: Scene 3: 458 words

How do actors learn their lines? It’s not the same act of memorizing that we perform as students when we commit to memory the steps of photosynthesis for a biology midterm. Actors learn lines to repeat them over and over in performance after performance, and yet must do so as if they have never spoken them before, to create “the illusion of the first time” (Stanislavsky qtd. in Strasberg 35). Earlier this semester, I managed to learn lines for a play and repeat them in six performances, but I still don’t know how I did it. In fact, it was only after the play closed that I could bring myself to count the words. I was curious to know how many I’d memorized, but if I had counted them before I’d learned them, the process of memorizing would have been too daunting. And counting them during the run of the play could have undermined my performance; dwelling on how many words I was keeping in my head might have made me more prone to forget.

So how did I learn those 1,567 words and remember them?

My fascination with learning lines—and admittedly, my anxiety about the possibility of forgetting—led me to research the process. I found that teachers of acting tend to downplay memorizing lines. In fact, the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century spoke rarely on the subject in their lectures. Though it’s essential to the craft—actors can’t read from their scripts or call “line, please” in performance, after all—it isn’t a focus of instruction. Still, it’s a process worthy of our attention because of what it may reveal about memory and how line-learning may benefit our cognitive health.

Acting teacher Stella Adler instructed her students (among them, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro) not to memorize their lines, but instead to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students in The Art of Acting (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text”), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:

Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)

Notably, the texts that Adler asked her students to paraphrase aren’t scenes. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet isn’t a play but a collection of prose-poem essays. By choosing lines that her students would never perform in a play, Adler emphasized to them the importance of understanding the words on the page rather than the act of rote memorization.

Like Adler, Lee Strasberg instructed his students (including James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Paul Newman) to study texts that they wouldn’t perform. But rather than assigning them the prose-poems of The Prophet, as Adler did, Strasberg required his students to read short stories, among them Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Strasberg chose short stories over scenes because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarked, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).

The same emphasis Adler and Strasberg placed on understanding rather than memorizing is apparent in the teaching of their contemporary Sanford Meisner (whose students include Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Sydney Pollack). In the documentary Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret, Pollack discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:

What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.

Similar to Meisner’s notion of dialogue as the “last thing that happens [. . .] between to people,” is the belief of Uta Hagen’s (teacher of Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino) that learning lines is a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructed them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserted that creating those particulars will lead the actor to the lines:

As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)

February 20, 2014: seventh-eighths of my hair gone for "Third"

February 20, 2014: seven-eighths of my hair gone for “Third”

I didn’t know that I was following Hagen’s instruction when I asked a hair stylist to cut off seven-eighths of my hair or when I asked a seamstress if she could help me solve a head-scarf problem. My instinct simply told me that I needed to make my character, Nancy Gordon, as real as possible.  That meant figuring out how to keep scarves on my head in the fall and winter of Act One, when she’s hiding her hair loss from chemotherapy, and cutting my hair for her appearance in the spring of Act Two, when her hair has started to grow back.

In the first weeks of rehearsal, I simply tied my Act-One scarves over my hair, which I was then wearing in a ponytail (I hadn’t cut it yet), and they repeatedly came undone and fell off on stage. Can you sew these so they appear to be simply tied? I asked a seamstress. They keep falling off on stage, and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen. More importantly, I realized that I needed not to worry about the scarves. Doing so would take me out of the scene. On stage, I had to be Nancy, not myself, wondering if my scarf was about to slip and fall.

The seamstress said yes. She could sew the scarves’ knots for me. But if I do it now, she added, the scarves will be too loose after you cut your hair. So I went back to see her after I cut my hair. I tied on each scarf as tightly as possible, and she sewed the knots. Wearing them with their knots sewn and with double-sided tape securing them at my temples solved the problem.

That head-scarf problem and the seamstress’ solution are details I offer not as digression but as an example of the “particularizations” that Hagen instructs her students to make. With a scarf secured tightly—fused to my head, it seemed—I was Nancy Gordon in a way that I hadn’t been before. She was more real. But I still don’t understand how a particular such as a scarf or a haircut makes “much of what you have to say [. . .] inevitable” (Hagen 117). Still, I know that it was part of the process that transformed me into the character who spoke the words I spoke.

But why should anyone who isn’t an actor care about this? you may ask. Simply put, the answer is cognitive health. Though we aren’t all actors, we all experience diminished memory as we grow older, and cognitive research that explores the memorization process specific to acting indicates that it may improve our memory and other cognitive functions. The research team of Helga and Tony Noice—she a cognitive psychologist and he a director and actor—have studied acting and its cognitive effects for more than twenty years. In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” the Noices address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory (17).

The Noices’ recent studies of older adults who took part in four-week acting classes found marked improvements not only in memory but also “comprehension, creativity and other cognitive skills”:

Subjects showed a 19 percent increase in immediate word recall (a test of memory), a 37 percent increase in delayed story recall (a comprehension test) and a 12 percent increase in word fluency (a measure of creativity). (Noice and Noice ctd. in Hanc)

So should we enroll in acting classes to improve our cognitive skills? The Noices findings certainly make a case for it, especially when you consider that the acting classroom may be one of the last places where students are required to commit words to memory. In the information age, it’s far more important to develop our critical thinking skills. We don’t need to memorize what’s available at our fingertips, but we need to be able to distinguish the credible information from the dreck. And if the act of memorizing really does improve our cognitive health, perhaps we should look to the stage as a place to do it. I hope to return there, myself. But if I do, don’t ask me how many lines I have to learn. I won’t count them until the play closes.

Works Cited

Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.

Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.

Hanc, John. “Elderly Acting Might Just Improve . . . Line, Please!NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube.com. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.