Three-and-a-half years after returning to acting, I remain fascinated by the process of learning lines.

Back in 2014, after I finished performing in Third—the play that marked my return to the stage—I began researching the subject of line-learning. The two pieces of writing that resulted from that research (an annotated bibliography and an essay) are ones that I wrote primarily as models for my students. But the research, itself, is work that I would’ve done anyway. Chalk it up to my enduring interest in the subject.

I’m not sure what I expected to find, other than some examinations of best practices. Reading the lectures of Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg momentarily gave me a seat in the classrooms of those great acting teachers, but it didn’t offer much about the practice of line-learning, itself. Similarly, reading a research article on acting and cognitive functioning led me into the lecture halls of its coauthors—one a professor of psychology, the other a professor of theatre—demonstrating that acting may enhance memory, but not revealing how anyone actually learns lines.

So how do we do it?

I was too nervous—and too busy trying to remember my lines—to ask myself that question when I was in rehearsal and performance back in 2014. Only afterward could I begin the research that led to the essay that opened with these 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?

Fast forward to late April 2017, when I found myself cast in a role that required me to learn more than twice that number of words—yes, more than twice. After I picked up my script from the theatre, I began my ritual of cutting and pasting, literally cutting and pasting photocopies of my lines onto three-by-five note cards.

When I began cutting and pasting lines for my twentieth card, panic set in. The most lines I’d ever learned had fit onto twenty-two note cards. I was on card twenty, and I wasn’t even halfway through. How many cards would I have, and how would I ever learn all of these lines?

When I cut and pasted the last lines, I was on card fifty-two. If only I had a year, I thought. One card per week seemed manageable.

Somehow I did manage to learn all of those lines in matter of weeks—not months, or anything close to a year—though I’d feared that all those words (which I still haven’t counted) would far exceed what my brain could store and retrieve.

An earlier draft of these reflections included a list of guidelines I’ve developed. As I revised, I omitted them to avoid prescribing my own idiosyncratic process. Suffice to say, the ritual of cutting and pasting lines, as time consuming as it is, is worth the effort for me. As I cut and paste the words onto note cards, I sense that I am beginning to internalize not only the character’s speech patterns but also the structure of the play.

Though my research and ruminations haven’t taught me how I learn lines, I have developed a keener sense of what draws me back to the process again and again. As with writing, it’s the words. And as I wrestle now with these words on the page, I find myself hoping to be fretting over another stack of note cards soon.

Work Cited

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

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In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Devil in the White City, she claims that Erik Larson avoids the risk of “turning [the book] into a random compendium.” For all of his density of detail, Larson does manage to avoid that risk, creating instead a gripping dual narrative—one that succeeds, as Maslin asserts that it does—but not by using what Maslin cites as tactics that might ordinarily seem “alarming.” Rather the techniques that Larson employs are among the very building blocks of contemporary narrative.

Chief among Larson’s most successful narrative strategies is his cross cutting, both between the dual storylines of the book (those of the Devil and the White City of the title) and between characters. One of his most compelling uses of cross cutting occurs in the chapter “Claustrophobia,” where Larson deftly shifts from the point of view of serial of killer H. H. Holmes, the devil of the title, to that of one of his victims, Anna “Nannie” Williams. In the first paragraphs of the chapter, Holmes and Anna are together in his office, where he asks her “if she would mind going into the adjacent room, the walk-in vault, to retrieve for him a document he had left inside” (294). Anna complies, and thereafter the point of view shifts between Anna inside the vault, believing “the door had closed by accident” (294), and Holmes standing outside the door, listening for the panic to come “as it always did” (295).

Readers witnessing the events leading up to Anna’s death do not stop to ask: How can Larson know what happened? Though they know in the back of their minds that only Holmes and Anna themselves could know what transpired, Larson’s dramatic cross cutting draws them so close to both the victim and her killer that they experience those moments as Holmes and Anna do.

In his endnotes, Larson addresses his reasons for depicting Anna’s murder as he did. Based on police speculation that Holmes killed both Anna and her sister, Minnie, in his vault, an earlier chronicler of Holmes’ exploits—Harold Schechter, author of Depraved (1994)—proposed that Holmes walked into the vault with Anna: “Grasping Nannie by the hand, he led her toward the vault” (Schechter qtd. in Larson 416). Rather than depicting the events as Schechter did, Larson presents Holmes sending Anna into the vault on a false errand because that scenario, in Larson’s words, “would have suited more closely his temperament” (416).

Whether Holmes sent Anna into his vault on a false errand, Larson’s compelling rendering of it exemplifies how the author employs the dramatic effects of fiction—not tactics that are “alarming” as Maslin claims, but ones that writers have commonly applied to narrative nonfiction for more than fifty years, since the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking  account of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood. And like In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City presents a true crime story with the narrative arc of a novel. But Larson’s book is more ambitious and broader in scope than Capote’s. Ultimately, The Devil in the White City is a hybrid of true crime and popular history—the gruesome murders of a serial killer juxtaposed with the construction of the magical white city that inspired Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum. For readers fascinated by the minds of criminals and visionary architects, it’s a page turner. And for writers drawn to the challenge of giving facts the appeal of fiction, it offers a blueprint.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Maslin, Janet. “Add a Serial Murderer to 1893 Chicago’s Opulent Overkill.” Review of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

 

Scorsese and DiCaprio / Paramount

Last month, when Erik Larson cancelled his campus visit to Lenoir-Rhyne, our study of The Devil in the White City took an unexpected turn. No longer would our last weeks of reading be informed by the author’s own commentary. As I asked myself how my students and I might proceed in the absence of Larson, it occurred to me that the film adaptation in development could be the source of a series of assignments. Subsequently, I crafted a research exercise, an individual blog post assignment, and a follow-up collaborative blog assignment that involved looking ahead to the upcoming film while looking back at the pages of Larson’s book for textual support for possible casting choices.

Reading the cast recommendations that my students’ produced–each student’s individual choices as well as the expanded proposals that they produced collaboratively–revealed a level of detail and engagement with the subject that many of their previous short assignments lacked. Notably, most of their individual blog posts far exceeded the 150-word minimum length requirement.

Though I regret that my students and I didn’t have the opportunity to see Larson, I am grateful that his cancellation led me to rethink my approach to teaching The Devil in the White City.

The paragraphs that follow offer my version of the assignment: the casting recommendations that I wrote along with my students.


Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City—now in development at Paramount—will star Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor well suited to play the devil of the title, H. H. Holmes, not because he possesses the same “striking blue eyes” (35), as the charismatic serial killer—though he does—but instead because of DiCaprio’s ability to embody charming characters who trade in deception. Larson’s descriptions of Holmes as someone who could “bewitch men and women alike” (146) and who had “a talent for deflecting scrutiny” (364) bring to mind roles from his previous collaborations with Scorsese—notably Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street—as well as Frank Abagnale, Jr. from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can.

While DiCaprio—who bought the film rights to Larson’s book in 2010—is set to play Holmes, the rest of the film’s casting remains undetermined, or at least unknown to outsiders. One possible contender for Daniel Burnham, the other figure at the center of Larson’s book, is Hugh Bonneville. The Downton Abbey actor’s  ability to play a “decisive, blunt, and cordial” (35) figure is evidenced in his portrayal of that other turn-of-century character: Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. And Larson’s depiction of Burnham as a man who “symbolized all that stood in the way of [young architect Louis] Sullivan’s emerging ethos” recalls the tension between Grantham and his son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech).

For Frederick Law Olmsted, chief landscape architect and elder statesmen, Scorsese might turn to Anthony Hopkins. Though Hopkins’ frame is not slight, as Larson describes Olmsted’s (53), his face does fit the description of Olmsted’s as “worn and gray, except for his eyes, which gleamed beneath his skull like marbles of lapis” (113). More importantly, with his signature quiet intensity, Hopkins could masterfully convey Olmsted’s struggle as a visionary figure—a benevolent version of Westworld’s Dr. Ford—striving for his field to be “recognized as a distinct branch of the fine arts” (50), as he transforms the landscape of Jackson Park.

Although Dora Root, wife of John Root (Burnham’s partner in architecture) appears only briefly in the book, the passage in which Larson recounts her mixed emotions upon seeing the White City—finding the park “infinitely sad” but “entrancing” all at once (253)—is among the most poignant that Larson writes. As the widow witnessing the fair that her husband didn’t live to see, Laura Linney could deliver a nuanced performance akin to hers as Abigail Adams, beloved wife and advisor to the second president, in the HBO miniseries John Adams. And Linney’s co-star in John Adams, Paul Giamatti, could adeptly portray detective Frank Geyer, who “never tired” (349) in his investigation of Holmes’ crimes, echoing Giamatti’s role in The Illusionist as Uhl, the police inspector who doggedly pursued Eisenheim (Edward Norton).

Paul Dano / twitter.com

Prendergast / chicagonow.com

Lastly, Paul Dano comes to mind as an apt candidate for the role of Patrick Prendergast, the young Irish immigrant whose murder of Carter Henry Harrison turns the fair’s closing ceremony into a memorial for the slain Chicago mayor. The meltdown that Dano exhibited as Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, when Dwayne’s sister, Olive (Abigail Breslin) reveals to him that he can’t become a pilot (because he’s colorblind), illustrates Dano’s ability to convincingly play the unstable—and eventually delusional assassin—in his “accelerating mental decline” (183).

Work Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.


Scorsese’s choices will likely differ from the ones that my students and I have presented, but the process, itself, of returning to the pages of Larson’s book to explore casting possibilities has offered a valuable exercise in textual analysis, one I may return to in future semesters. Even if the books that my students and I study aren’t slated for film production–and many of them will not be–we can still ask the question, whom would I cast? as a starting point for exercising our imaginations along with our intellects.

Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

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.

 

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In the first paragraphs of Dwayne Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom (2009), he recounts his ride to the Fairfax County jail after his arrest for carjacking: a “certifiable” crime in Virginia, which meant that then-sixteen-year-old Betts would be treated as an adult under state law. Last Thursday night when Betts took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne, he began by reading those paragraphs, returning to the backseat of that police car, where “[e]verything near enough for me to touch gleamed with the color of violence” (3). After reading from his memoir, Betts turned to his collections of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), alternating his readings with stories of his years in prison and his writing. He expressed his concern that some people cited his memoir as evidence that prison benefited him, because he had finished his high school education behind bars; and since leaving, he had completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, an MFA in Creative Writing at Warren-Wilson, and a law degree at Yale. To see his post-incarceration successes as evidence that his years behind bars benefited him, Betts said, was a misinterpretation. Following his Q&A with the audience, Betts concluded by saying that he’d been desperate and lucky–“but sometimes desperate and lucky works out.”

Among the anecdotes that Betts shared with the audience was one focusing on his answer to a question about one of his poems. A reader asked him why an otherwise innocuous poem ended with an image of crack cocaine. To illustrate why he ended the poem that way, Betts turned to August Wilson’s play Fences, telling the audience how the character Troy tries to explain his adultery to his wife, Rose, by likening his decision to a moment in a baseball game. He’s wrong, Betts said, but it’s the only way Troy knows how to try to communicate what he means. In Betts’ words, “sometimes you only have what you have to explain the world.”

Betts’ memoir isn’t an easy read, showing as it does what a life behind bars can do to the mind and the body. But it also tells the story of the power of the written word, how books sustained Dwayne Betts and led him to become a writer, “carv[ing] a voice out of the air” (123). Though many of my students aren’t drawn to writing or to reading books, I believe that the experience of studying  A Question of Freedom and hearing Betts speak has deepened their understanding of the vital role that reading and writing can play in their lives.

Work Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom.  Avery, 2009.

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.