Putting words in my mouth

Who is that man walking along with his dog, muttering to himself? (The man, I mean, not the dog.)

You can see him on the path by the motorway of a morning, his lips exercising themselves with peculiar energy, his facial expressions as changeable as Scottish weather.

Oh, all right. I admit it. It's me. Learning my part.

The dog is getting quite used to it. But she glances oddly when silent mouthing sprouts into audible words. "Is it me you're talking to?"

"No, silly, I'm talking to Boss Whalen." (He's the tyrannical warden of the prison where I'm the chaplain in Tennessee Williams's "Not About Nightingales.")

At the Sheep's Head Theatre yesterday, one of the convicts (a bulky gentleman with the voice of a troubled bull who arrives at rehearsals in an expensive car) is perched on a chair, deeply absorbed in an audiotape. Is he listening to Beethoven's Ninth? No. You can tell, because he periodically starts mouthing silent words with grim urgency; he, too, is learning his part.

Somebody says: "There are homes for people like you." The comment goes unheeded. "Studying," as the old school of actors called it, takes a massive amount of unselfconscious concentration.

We are all under pressure.

Claire, our director, has issued an ultimatum: We must all be off the book now.

One of the women in The Players' production of "The Odd Couple" last month remarked that she found the best way of learning was endless rehearsing. I agree. You soon associate lines with actions that way. You can only go so far in the bath, the car, on dog walks, or in a graveyard.

Directors around here seem hooked on the idea of "line runs." So Claire has us sit in a circle out in the graveyard under a shady tree. She says: "Now there's no need to say the words with expression, or to direct them at other actors." I should perhaps explain that we are practicing our words in a graveyard: (a) because it's nice to be outside on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon, and (b) because the Sheep's Head Theatre used to be a church. The grounds are the resting place for numerous Glasgow notables and their beautifully inscribed stone slabs. I am gravely tempted to say something more appropriate to the setting: "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio...."

Some lines are decidedly easier to learn than others. Verse is easier than prose. Shakespeare, on the whole, sticks to the memory-wall effectively. I do recall as a schoolboy, though, having a great struggle with the opening words of one of Benedick's speeches in "Much Ado About Nothing." I had to repeat and repeat it, really drum it in without mercy. Tellingly, I can still remember most of these words more than 40 years later.

I'm finding this Williams part to be in the same league, retention-wise. My difficulty today, though, may be a longtime writer's problem: I keep substituting my words for Tennessee's. I'm sure I read somewhere that he thought of his words as only a general guide rather than a definitive text, but Claire has made it clear she wants his words, not "paraphrasing."

Here's the sort of thing I do. The chaplain says: "The men have gone on hunger strike, which I think is fully justified by the quality of the food they've been getting."

But I keep saying: "... is fully qualified by the ..." and then, of course, I flounder. How can I possibly go on? I can't say:

"... by the justice of the food they've been getting." No.

But if I said it with sufficient conviction, would the audience notice? Mind you, I don't plan to put it to the test. The dog is going to witness a lot more peripatetic line-learning over the next few days.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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