Hello! I’m Brooke Heintz, bringing you this week’s blog from the perspective of acting the play’s resident clown, Launcelot Gobbo (as well as the pompous Prince of Arragon and a couple other minor parts). As I write this, Off-Book Day looms: perhaps appropriately directly after the Ides of March (which I can assure you, most of us are feeling plenty wary of as a result).
There are a few questions that, when approached by audience members after a show, I’ve gotten time after time, show after show, year after year, and none so much as:
How in the world do you guys memorize all those lines?
People tend to ask this in a tone that implies they think there must be some kind of voodoo magic involved, or maybe hours and hours of writing the lines again and again on a chalkboard, Bart Simpson style.
I’m here to promise you that no boxes of chalk were harmed or worn to nubs in the making of this production. In reality, every one of us has our own process for memorizing, but there are a few things that are pretty consistent across the board for all of us.
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that ol’ Billy Shakespeare was looking out for us and our task of having to commit this thing to memory. In fact, the very structure of the language in the play lends itself to memorization. We’ve all probably had the phrase ‘iambic pentameter’ drilled into our skulls by earnest English teachers (I should know; I’ve been one of those), but all that fancy phrase really means it that much of the play is written in metered speech. In other words – it has a rhythm.
It’s that same rhythm that actually helps with getting the text into our skulls. Think about the way in which snatches of lyrics end up in your brain: those dreaded ‘ear-worms.’ Or, the way setting something to a song can aid a student in their studies. That built-in cadence gives the language a lyrical quality, and as such, word choice has a flow, and can get ‘stuck in your head’ if you hear and say it enough.
However, this only applies to the metered section of the text, or verse lines, and not to the prose (un-metered) sections. As a result, I find it’s often much more difficult to memorize prose than verse. Playing a clown in Merchant means that I play a character who finds no cause to use that hoity-toity ‘verse’ language at any point in the play.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t other elements that assist memorization at work in the language. Launcelot, being a clown, often speaks in his own sort of comedic structure constructing arguments to set up his jokes. I’ve found that this is much easier to remember, than, for example, the many prose lines I had in Merry Wives of Windsor, because Launcelot’s lines have an ingrained logic and build, necessary to get to the ‘punch line’, so to speak.
It’s my first time playing a fool, and so I’ve had a lot of fun picking apart the way in which Launcelot speaks, as opposed to the other more serious characters he attends. And rehearsal today was my first attempt to go off book completely – and resulted in a lot less calling for line than I’d expected!
I’ll be over here thanking the linguistics of clowning.