Two nights ago, while delivering my first monologue in the play I’m in at the moment, I spotted somebody sitting in the second row of the audience who I’d shared a disastrous one-night stand with about three years ago. A long-forgotten moment of my past, sitting there looking up at me with glasses on, even having the cheek to thumb through the programme to take a look at my credits.
Naturally, this threw me off course for the next twenty seconds which seemed to me, of course, like twenty minutes had passed. Terrible business. Still, I got through it eventually — but only just.
I don’t do so much legitimate theatre these days — or one-night stands come to think of it — and it’s mainly because I have a fear of forgetting what I’m up to onstage. It’s all very well going blank when it comes to the lines of comedy routines you’ve written yourself — you can somehow improvise your way around it and find yourself back in the right place. But you can’t really get away with it when you’re doing, say, Shakespeare — and especially when your fellow actors are reliant on your cue.
No — there is nothing in the world like forgetting your lines in front of a paying audience and when it happens it occurs without any warning whatsoever. Even worse is when it happens midway through a sentence. You have no choice but to carry on and hope for the best with a very dry mouth — hence the expression drying.
It’s only happened to me once before and I’ve never been quite the same cocky bastard onstage since.
It happened in the summer of last year at the Connelly Theater here in New York on the opening night, no less, of I’ll Say She Is, the Marx Brothers musical. It was during the final scene of the show, where the leading lady finds herself on trial for murder, with Groucho as prosecutor, Harpo as judge (a silent one, naturally) and Chico (myself) as defense lawyer. It’s a brilliant scene with a ton of one-liners, puns and perfectly timed horn-blowing from Harpo with those brilliant asides from Groucho to the audience. It’s also very much a sequence dependent on a fast pace. Somewhere amidst all this on opening night, with the theatre press in attendance, I suddenly went blank. A chill gripped my heart and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I had absolutely no idea where I was in the script. The brief silence that accompanied it was nothing less than dreadful and my fellow actors could only look on helplessly. I will never forget the sight of our Groucho, wide eyes fixed on me, clutching cigar in hand (Noah, forgive me) waiting for something to come out of my mouth. We got through it, of course, but the dread of it happening again has stayed with me since that performance.
“But how do you learn your lines?”, they all say. It’s a fascination for a lot of people and it’s question actors get asked relentlessly but the truth of it is, there is no simple answer. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had my lines taped to my bedroom wall, attached to a music stand so can I read them from the bathtub, and I’ve written them over and over again by hand. But no matter how many times you run them to yourself offstage, there is never a guarantee that all will be well.
The famous stories are numerous. There’s the respected actor who found the pressure of learning the role of W. H. Auden so great that he had to leave the production and check into a hospital. There’s the story of the actor going onstage at the last minute as an understudy in Macbeth who was supposed to say a line to cue fourteen other actors to leave the stage, and he completely forgot it, leaving everybody just standing there in silence. Then there’s the actor who whispered three times to the stage manager — who was doubling up as the ‘prompt’ in the wings — for help with his next line, to be met only with the unwelcome response of “Hang on... I’m doing something”.
There are performers out there who have suffered — and continue to suffer — from this form of stage fright for years. The actor Richard Dreyfuss used an earpiece onstage at the Old Vic a few years back in a play that saw him in a role with a lot of lines, while the singer Barbra Streisand once used autocues (teleprompters) on tour to minimise her fear of forgetting lyrics. Both of these events drew an unsympathetic response from the British press, but I get it. I would rather see somebody fall back on the earpiece or the autocue than see them up there onstage having a panic attack simply because they went blank.
If only I had an autocue or an earpiece onstage last Friday night. The fear is real and there’s only one way to fight it: by keeping on getting back up there. In a few hours I will head into Manhattan with my lines pre-recorded so I can listen to them on the Subway on my way to work. They say you can do too much of that, you know. Too much repetition. It could have an adverse effect.
All I can hope for tonight is that my memory functions seamlessly and we have an audience of complete strangers to play to.
Wish me well.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush began back in 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings — a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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