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Stage Brain

A few weeks ago, I walked onto the Intiman Playhouse stage to emcee TheatreSports for the first time at that location. (I’ve performed there several times, but hadn’t MCed yet.) I had done all of the requisite emcee preparation – sound check with the crew, etc – and with my whistle and stopwatch around my neck, I was ready to go.

Except that for some reason, I hadn’t figured on the lights being QUITE so bright. When you’re performing, there is no need for direct eye contact with the audience except when getting suggestions – and usually at that point the house lights are on. After my entrance and requisite solo goofysexy dancing, I began to address the crowd, and my brain split into two.

“Where are all the people? Why can’t I SEE?!? This is weird! … NO! Don’t use your hand to shield the light – amateur move! Oooh, these shoes are comfy for heels. Ack, keep your feet planted, don’t get distracted!”

Attack of the Stage Brain.

This little inner monologue kept running while I spoke to the audience and ran through the standard intro for TheatreSports. No one knew it was there; in fact one of our most experienced emcees complimented me on my performance after the show.

This is what actors do – well, as far as I know. There are moments of pure focus, but more often than not you are of two minds onstage. One, the feeling and experiencing character brain – and the other, the logistical planning and monitoring brain. I can be dancing and singing and smiling while simultaneously preparing to get jumped from behind, for example. Or addressing a crowd while thinking about how my feet feel in these shoes. Or delivering a monologue while thinking “I’m going to have to kiss someone in a minute and I think the ‘wine’/cranberry juice undid my mints.”

Sometimes it feels like sitting on a camera crane and pulling back from what’s happening to your body as another character inhabits it. Pretty weird, but powerful.

And then, of course, when one talks about scripted shows, the biggest question on everyone’s minds: “How do you MEMORIZE all of that?!?” Quite frankly, it sometimes mystifies me, too. The show I’m in right now is the most text I’ve ever had in a single show; eighty minutes for essentially 2 people with a few bit parts scattered in. It is a LOT. (And with new shows there is always the risk of rewrites, though after our first week of rehearsals on this project there weren’t many changes.)

For me, I am a kinesthetic learner. I’m not going to get very far sitting down just memorizing a script. I need the blocking, the physical experience of the lines – that helps me tremendously, and usually by the 3rd or 4th complete run of a scene I’m largely off book except for the tricky bits. While we run through the scene, I’m layering notes in my head about how my character responds to the other things in the scene, so that I can take my clues and cues from the world around me. That makes nonsequiteurs pretty hard, though. And for plays like “The Universal Language”, where I played a stuttering character who had to respond to (and deliver) lines like this: “Alla da peepholes enda voold, enda looniverse, cargo a schlong ender hertz. Epp, dat schlog arf Unamunda.” …well, I can see how some folks would see that and think it some sort of black magic.

In the end, the best example I can give for how it works is rooted in programming. A script is like a giant linked list in my head. You start with the first line and draw emotional pointers that get you from line to line. This makes it hard to start in the middle, since it’s hard to find the right address without the link. But it also means that you only REALLY need to know the first ‘address’ off the top of your head – the rest will flow if you’ve laid the connections correctly.

I believe I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before, but this also leads to a peculiar feeling on closing night of a scripted show. To me, it’s as if Langoliers are chasing behind me, eating up the entries in the linked list of lines as I deliver them. Once you know you don’t need to know something anymore, 9 times out of 10 it just evaporates into the ether.

Perhaps the strangest thing for me is the fact that I sometimes feel that I don’t have total control over line delivery. It’s as if I tie an emotion to a line and toss it over a wall to see how it falls. Sometimes you surprise yourself. If I find a delivery I really like, I can usually learn to harness it. But sometimes the character just seems to take control and take the line somewhere you didn’t originally intend. Could be your scene partner changing things up, your mood, or perhaps the humidity or the phase of the moon.

PLUG: If you’d like to see this all in action, come see the show I’m starring in, “September Skies.” It runs from September 1 – October 1 at the Odd Duck Studio in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (More info: Preview article and Facebook page)

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