In her third blog, Margot discusses this week's rehearsals, learning and forgettting lines, and being alert on stage.
Transcript of Podcast
Rehearsals this week
We’ve been working through from the top of the play. Yesterday we were doing the first scene which is Virgilia and Volumnia and then Valeria comes in and they go off to greet Coriolanus. There are the ‘girly’ scenes and then the men were all having fight calls yesterday. It's so nice that we’re not in those because we can have time to go off and look at our lines whilst the boys go off and do roaring around and waving swords and shouting.
Today we are looking at the big scene with Coriolanus where he comes back from having blown it with the tribunes and the people. He comes back and Volumnia gives him a lesson on how to be a strategic, political sort of person. She gives him a sort of lesson in media presentation really, instructing him to go and behave in a certain way to achieve your ends even if you don’t believe it. It's really how to put a ‘spin’ on things or to lie really.
I would say I have learnt my lines now. They’re sort of floating like silt on a pond, they’re just there and I know them but they’re not completely sunk into my blood yet. I do actually know the sense of them. Sometimes I paraphrase and say the wrong word but the sense is right, so obviously they’re seeping in. It used to be so easy to learn lines when I was younger and I was talking about this with the younger girls playing Virgilia and Valeria. It used to be that you could just sort of get it by osmosis. You just read and performed the scene a lot and it would just soak into you from off the page. But now, it really is learning by rote.
There's a lot to learn with Volumnia, not just exchanges but also speeches where you are generating your own next thought. You’re not just saying your line because someone else has just said something that engages you - you are making it up as you go along and I have really had to learn that off by heart in a quite old-fashioned way by moving my hand down the page to memorise five lines in at a time. It is quite hard and I’m surprised at how hard it is. I haven’t got a technique except enormous struggle and the fear and terror of the thought of not knowing it- that motivates you!
Now that everyone knows their lines rehearsals are much better and easier because we’re actually doing it, no matter how tentative or scary or how awful it sounds when we open our mouths. You might have all sorts of ideas in your head, and reading it before will have revealed things, but actually doing it and looking at the person and saying the lines properly to them and getting a reaction reveals much more about how to do it than talking about it ever could.
Forgetting lines on stage
I have forgotten my lines on stage before, but not for a while. It's such a truly awful thought, you get a sort of curtain come across your brain and you just can’t remember. You don’t know you’re going to dry but the next thought just isn’t there and you either jump ahead or burble around it until you get it back on track. It is one of the most unpleasant feelings and I think everybody, not just actors, has those anxiety dreams where they’re on stage and they don’t know the lines and you’re always trying to explain to people. A classic actors’ dream is being pushed on stage and nobody will listen to you when you keep turning round and saying ‘I don’t know this part’ and they keep saying ‘ It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, you’ll be all right’. It really is such a familiar dream for so many actors but I think we all have those. It is such a deep, deep anxiety that we all have that dream in common.
Best moment of rehearsals so far
At the moment I’m enjoying very much working with Giles Block on the text, finding out about the verse and which words to emphasise. In terms of placing a stress, sometimes he can give you help with the beat. For example, I have a line where I say ‘For how can we? Alas, how can we for our country pray?’ and he said I could try stressing the how and the we the first time.’ So it will be ‘For how can we? Alas, how can we for our country pray?’ Something like that lifts the line and helps to it to make sense. So I’ve enjoyed that, but maybe that's also because those sessions take place out of the pressure of rehearsals so maybe it feels safer at the moment. I’ll let you know as things go on.
I find it difficult when I think of the sheer size of the part. By that I mean the emotional size of what's got to happen. The nature of the task is getting clearer to me and I suppose you have to have a self confidence or a self belief that you can fulfil that. That is a constant source of anxiety and worry until you’ve moved into the part and the words are fluent and you’re doing it - then you’ll find out if you can or can’t! At the moment it's not clear because you’re not able to go at it full pelt. So that would be an area of anxiety at the moment.
Being aware and alert on stage
There are in fact at least six or seven conscious thoughts going on in your head when you’re on stage. Firstly, you are operating the thoughts of the character. If I was saying as Volumnia ‘Nay go not from us thus, if it was so that our request then our request did tend to save the Romans thereby to destroy the Volscians” then you’re grappling with a complicated line about the deal Coriolanus could do. At the same time you would also be aware where you are facing – are you facing the actor? Can the audience see? Are you going to tread on the hem of your dress if you stepped backwards? If you stepped backwards, would you go into Virgilia and the little boy? What's that person in the crowd doing and are they concentrating? Is that member of the audience laughing? You have a lot of thoughts and a lot of awareness going on. You’ve got a scanner going on the whole time, monitoring the performance while you’re doing it because you’re thinking ‘Oh that didn’t get a laugh and it usually gets a laugh - I wonder what I did’ and ‘Oh I must lift this a bit’. It's strange there's a lot going on even if it's the slightest exchange.
Being on stage is about getting the balance of the right thoughts, the right awareness and actually being relaxed on stage and concentrated at the same time. It's a funny state. You have to be very, very focussed and absolutely relaxed all at the same time. You can’t go on concentrating and concentrating; tension is no good. It's helpful to think about your objective. For example in the last scene, when Volumnia is trying to get Coriolanus to change his mind, it's that kind of focus that that will carry you through those two long speeches by focussing on the objective of stopping Coriolanus invading Rome. There are so many different ways of trying to persuade him but that's the single intent. It's a mixture of things that you say and things that you do.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.