The Second Act — The Illusion of Reality

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“You guys are so good at memorizing your lines and delivering them on stage that anyone new is just intimidated to act with you.”

It wasn’t intended as a compliment, but rather an indictment of our community theater group. So let me begin a defense with an admission that we’re really not that good, at least at memorizing our lines. To some degree, it’s an illusion.

One of my high school theater teachers put forth as a standard for memorization: “When you can recite it perfectly three times, you’ve got it.”

Maybe in high school, but that’s not adequate anymore. I’ve been in several plays and learned a lot of lines. I can say from experience that the three-repetition standard is at best a starting point, a point we loosely refer to as “off book.” The performance standard is perfection, and not just in perfect circumstances. The standard is that you’re able to produce your lines on cue and in character, and that you’re able to adapt and meet that standard even when another actor or technician fails to meet the same standard of perfection.

I suppose that might sound intimidating. But let’s get real. That’s the standard. Sometimes we don’t meet it. And sometimes we cheat.

Yes, I’ll admit it: Cheat. I’ve used some cribs. Techniques to supplement my memory. And I’ve done it often enough that I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. I don’t really think of it as cheating when I post my first line on the door where I make my entrance. It just seems like a good way to get into the action.

Anxiety peaks at that moment you walk onto stage, and it’s good to have confirmation that you’re about to deliver the right line. I’ve written names on the desk next to the phone to ensure I’d call people in the right order. And when I’ve had opportunity to carry a notepad onstage (on which my character is ostensibly taking notes) I haven’t feel guilty about writing a few key phrases on it. I generally don’t write complete lines, but rather cues to help if I experience a momentary memory lapse. I usually don’t use them, but it’s tremendously comforting to know that they’re there.

Watching the national media, it seems that lies, cheating and deception have become a normal part of life. Kind of like life is an act, an illusion, a form of entertainment, and if you can fool the audience, it’s okay. I don’t generally accept that as a philosophy of life, but in theater what you see is an act, an illusion, a form of entertainment, and if you can fool the audience, it’s okay.

How much cheating can you get away with? It depends. Some performances are off script, some aren’t. Whitefish Theatre Company does Black Curtain performances, which are performed without sets and with the actors reading from their scripts. It’s not that the plays were intended to be performed that way, but the audiences accept it as a way of experiencing the play in a less intense production.

We in Bigfork have done old-time radio shows, as used to be broadcast before there was television. When we do a stage version of them, the stage actors are portraying voice actors of yesteryear, who in reality were in a studio reading from their scripts. And last year we produced a version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” that was a cross between a radio show and a live production; much of the script was available to the actors on video screens that were incorporated into the story as newsroom tele-prompters.

A local theater director of some note once stated in a workshop that “you do whatever it takes to maintain the illusion.” That seems to be the crux of the matter. The most important thing is to achieve the desired effect on the audience. Theater, like magic, is an illusion. It doesn’t matter whether the perception is real or imagined, so long as the audience can’t tell the difference.

So in response to the new actor — none of us are perfect. But, if it seems that we are, then we’re doing our jobs well. Sometimes in life, but always in theater, the illusion itself is the reality.

David Vale studied human memory in graduate school. He finds those lessons are becoming more valuable and less memorable with the passage of time.

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