Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture. – Spencer Tracy, actor.
Knowing your lines and remaining steady on your feet is easy for an acting veteran. If you’re starting out your acting career, however, you could have a case of blanking appear at any time. When it does, don’t worry – and don’t flee the country mid-run like Stephen Fry did in 1995. Odds are you’re not yet famous enough to pull that off.
Forgetting Your Lines
I was halfway through a three-page monologue and I just blanked. I could not have told you my name. John Mahoney, actor.
It’s an actor’s worst fear; it’s also inevitable. Blanking on stage happens often enough that there’s an industry slang term for it: drying. It can be caused by both under-preparing and over-preparing; learning lines is something of an art more than an exact science. Analysing why you’ve blanked in the moment isn’t possible; instead fight-or-flight takes over.
“You know the word you’re searching for, it’s just that you can’t remember what it is. It begins with an L. Is it an L? Or is it a P? Too late; the line is upon you, your mouth is already framing the word, and you have no option but to allow instinct to kick in.” – Michael Simkins, actor and writer.
What to Do
In nearly every performance someone will forget a line or a cue – and every actor will be that someone, at some point. One day it will be you. If you follow these steps and set the play back on course, it’s no problem at all.
- Don’t panic. You have “dried up” momentarily, but panicking will make this last much longer.
- Look up. Looking down signals to everyone that you’ve blanked; looking up, on the other hand, helps your brain to visualise.
- Let your partner know you’ve blanked. You can do this by improvising a line suitable to the situation. They can then help by picking up the scene and throwing you new lines. The whole play will come flooding back to you with the right trigger line, and the audience will never know anything was wrong.
Don’t worry about taking a moment or two to go through these motions. A good dramatic pause never hurt anyone – so rehearse your pensive stares!
Stage fright is similar to drying, but often worse due to the build up. Clammy skin, upset stomach, shaky knees, dry mouth – symptoms like this can start affecting you long before you get on stage. Suffering from stage fright doesn’t mean you’re a poor actor: Laurence Olivier, Amanda Seyfried, and Stephen Fry have all experienced it. Olivier called it “the actor’s nightmare,” but he worked through it; and so can you.
“You can be afflicted at any point. That’s the scary thing. It can be really intense. You’re heart’s going 10 to the dozen. It’s a real shocker. It intensifies as you walk towards the stage – and it never actually leaves.” – John Simm, actor.
Don’t think you’re particularly sensitive, or singularly unfit. One medical study revealed that amount of stress actors felt on their first couple of opening nights is equal to experiencing a car crash.
What to Do
The best cure for any kind of blanking is pre-emptive. Remembering your lines and staying calm is sometimes as simple as preparing properly. If you’re new to the industry, you might be blanking frequently because you haven’t quite honed your line-learning skills.
If you’re playing a lead role in a line-heavy play such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you might quite rightfully be worried; but we have some tips to make the line-learning process much easier.
- Read them out loud. On your first few read-throughs you should experiment with tone and delivery, and get a feel for the rhythm of the sentences.
- Early on, go for a walk while you practice. Keeping your body busy will stop it from distracting your mind, so you can focus.
- Later, work your physical acting into the lines. That way they can inform each other: if you forget what your next action is, the line that goes with it might remind you; and vice versa.
- Finally, don’t forget to memorise your cues, too!
Remembering your lines in different situations – while walking, while sitting, while in rehearsals – is vital. If you only ever run your lines one way, you’ll find it difficult to incorporate anything new. This means that any acting notes you get in the lead-up to a show could result in blanking.
Instead of fighting the adrenaline that comes with blanking, you can harness it. In method acting there’s a technique called relaxation. Performers do it before every other exercise, and throughout their careers often continue to do it before a performance. Method actors swear that relaxation puts them in a trance-like state, through which acting becomes instinctive and natural; it’s almost a form of hypnosis.
In relaxation, you sit limply in an armless chair. The aim is to release tension from the body; this is done by lifting limbs and wiggling joints until there is no stiffness remaining anywhere in the body. If you still feel some tension, try vocalisations: groaning, shouting, screaming. Something guttural or without words.
Relaxation is difficult at first, in no small way because you’re probably still overcoming any shame or embarrassment you have (experienced actors learn to relinquish such things). However, like any exercise it becomes easier with repetition. If you practice them soon after your blank moments, you’ll be able to enter the trance-like state you were in throughout rehearsals; this could jolt you back into the play.
At the end of the day there’s no secret or shortcut to preventing blanking; you just have to put in the time. Even then, you’ll probably blank at least once in your career – you’re only human, after all.
If you want to experience a relaxation class or develop a trusting, or learn more about how to build a helpful bond with your scene partners, perhaps you should consider our Ultimate Acting Programme. The next intake is October 2016 and the next set of auditions are on 31st August, so if you’re a budding star – apply now.