I know a lot of people in the performing arts literally or figuratively roll their eyes at the inevitable question, “How do you remember all those lines.” However, Stephen Colbert reminds us that you don’t have to always answer the exact question as asked. In a tribute to former teacher/friend/mentor Frank Galati who recently died, Colbert recently shared a commercial break conversation he had last October with John Lithgow where he discusses Galati’s thoughts on that question.
“He said, ‘how do you remember all those lines? Let’s not take for granted that there is something magical about that. You’ve changed something in yourself. People don’t sit down and memorize two hours of text. You did. Why did you do that? How did you do that?’ He goes ‘What are you when you go on stage? What is that other thing that you are becoming? How are you presenting yourself. What are you willing to become this person who wants to present ideas and emotions to an audience. How do you become beautiful?
And that the beauty of the world we see all around…and when you go on stage you answer the accusation of the world which is that you are hiding your beauty. The beauty of the world accuses you of hiding your beauty. When you go on stage, whatever you are, whatever part of humanity you are, you are just as much a part of the world that you find beautiful. And therefore, when you’re on stage, you’re as beautiful as an statue, you’re as beautiful as any sunset. When you allow people to see you, beautifully…”
Colbert goes on to relate how Galati cited a story about choreographer George Balanchine instructed a dancer to raise her leg beautifully, which is different from gently or lovely, but that she did so beautifully because the instruction had meaning for her.
The beginning of that story where Colbert cited the idea of changing something in yourself to be able to accomplish the memorization resonated for me. Often the act of memorizing text is only one small part of what is required to memorize the character you are going to portray. That character is different from you as the actor so you have to recall a 1000 little things, including the text, to bring that person to the stage.
That is different for every actor and every part. Thinking about it in that context allows you to respond differently to that oft asked question.
Perhaps this clip resonated with me because the morning of the same day I heard it, I heard a story about a woman who made the 2,744 step ascent of the steep Manitou Incline 1003 times in 365 days. (First woman and fourth person to ever do that) If you were to ask how she did it, she made a similar remark to Galati’s about changing something in oneself:
“I felt like it was something that I would have to level up in every area of my life: physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, socially … to be able to accomplish something like that,” Jones said.
It might not be a big surprise that you would have to change something about yourself to accomplish a physical feat, but a similar recognition doesn’t really exist for acting. There may be an assumption that is can all be accomplished by sitting in your living room chair. Providing a more complete answer to the question of how lines were memorized may shift that perception.