You might call it ad-liberation. I mean, why would an actor learn the words a playwright wrote? Isn't there a freedom in making up your own?
I must admit that I myself try, at least, to memorize the playwright's words – a modest attempt to be a parrot.
Rehearsing our recent (amateur) production of Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance," I noticed, as production assistant, that some others learn differently. We have a new member. She has acted for decades. And she – I'll call her Anastasia – began after a few weeks to worry the director. She was not learning Wilde's words. People were muttering things like "Poor Oscar!" She seemed blissfully unaware of any problem.
She remembered the gist of her speeches. Wilde's exact words, however, didn't take hold.
The director asked me to go over her lines with her. She was happy about this, but still came up with her own revised version.
After one rehearsal of Act I, Anastasia confessed something to me. "The reason," she explained, "that I made such a mess of Act I this afternoon was that I was trying very hard to use Wilde's actual words." This, I felt, might justifiably go down in the history of amateur dramatics.
About two weeks before opening night, the director confessed to me he had abandoned his optimism regarding Anastasia's words. Nevertheless, he kept on mentioning them to her. Anastasia would say, "Yes, I know what I did wrong. It won't happen again. I promise." But it did.
The beginnings of her speeches didn't matter so very much, perhaps. But the final words, cue lines for the other actors, mattered.
I somewhat eccentrically formed a sneaking admiration for Anastasia's method. It was remarkably inventive. She apparently had a sheaf of synonyms for Wilde's words on the tip of her tongue. It takes some effort to be an ad-libber extraordinaire.
And, in fact, during an actual performance, the ability to ad-lib can sometimes be a positive asset.
Which brings me to the Archdeacon.
The Archdeacon is a nice small part, with two entrances and two exits and a few moments of dialogue in between. He provides a degree of comic relief, or so the audience laughter hinted. I don't know why, but I was given this gift to perform.
My second entrance occurred a number of pages in from the start of Act III. The scene was set in a picture gallery in Lady Hunstanton's stately home. I am meant to come on in the wake of the said lady (played by Anastasia) and mime looking at pictures on the wall at the back of the stage while she and the others assembled carry on their witty talk. Then Lady H. turns to me and says something about how much she likes my sermons. They give her a sense of security and predictability because she always knows what I am going to say.
But in Thursday's performance, when she turned to address me thus, to her astonishment I was not there. Instead, blissfully unaware that I was late for my entrance, I was strolling down the stairs from the dressing rooms. I thought I had plenty of time. The onstage chess game that precedes this entrance took ages during rehearsals. But now, it seemed, it had speeded up.
I went through the door backstage to be greeted by a bunch of actors in the wings in an extreme state of agitation. "You've missed your entrance," they hissed and propelled me on stage, like an Archdeacon shot from a gun. This got a laugh, though it was hardly meant to.
It was only later that I discovered how Anastasia had gallantly – heroically – saved the day. Not finding me present, she had, I was told, said "...except for you, dear Archdeacon.... Ah! Er! Archdeacon? Where are you? I am sure I saw him recently. I think I must have left him somewhere in the corridor...."
At this point, or not long after, I was propelled onto the stage.
Afterward, some perceptive members of the audience remarked that they thought this small fiasco was intentional. That they had not been disconcerted by it, however, was entirely due to the seamless way in which Anastasia moved from the words of the play to her own. It was almost as if her own words had been written for her by Wilde himself.
I thanked her with considerable meaning and sincerity for so quick-wittedly masking my ineptitude. "I have completely changed my opinion of the art of ad-libbing," I said humbly.
"It was a pleasure," she replied, with a knowing dignity, clearly proud of her particular art. "I am famous for it."