Othello, Day 2: Acting when Blanking

Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othe...
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I am an analytical man; I like to examine a problem from all its angles and determine a solution. In theatre, this leads to much quick pacing and minor hair-pulling the moment I get off a stage where things have gone wrong.

Our second performance was a strange night for theatre; it was the day of Canada’s gold medal hockey win and the olympic closing ceremonies, so we were peached by the attendance of our smaller crowd of ~40 people who emerged to see the show.

As an acting group, our energy seemed quite low – the dreaded second performance of any show always seems to bring with it a lessened enthusiasm for some reason, with less punch behind the lines and less spring in our steps.

This was also the performance where I completely blanked on two of my lines – two hefty paragraphs, rather, in two separate scenes, one before and one after the intermission. I can’t remember ever losing lines to such an extent in a performance.

Had it been one line, I may have dismissed it and simply resolved to go over the line in more detail the next day. After all, we managed to hide my first slip well enough, with myself improvising minor Shakespearean quips while waiting for my scene partner to figure out his next line and work it in. We went off the track a little while, but hopped back on, and  the audience seemed none the wiser.

Had it been two paragraphs in the same scene, I might have worried somewhat about my connection to that one moment, and delved further. But these were two different scenes, two different emotions, same sorry scene partner (my bad, Ryan). And the second blank wasn’t so aptly handled.

No, that time was a calamity, a definite blank, where I kept in character but had absolutely nothing to say, and for what felt like five minutes, but was probably fifteen seconds, I stared at Othello, helpless. And Ryan Levis’s eyes throbbed with “say your f***ing line. SAY YOUR F***ING LINE.” I don’t swear, but his eyes were darned profane.

My only salvage was to lean over to him as if whispering in his ear… so that he could feed me the beginning of my line by whispering in mine.

And so, backstage, with cast members telling me not to worry about it, I set about the mental ordeal of determining why this was happening. After all, I’m trained! I’m a professional, dagnammit! I had warmed up my body, warmed up my voice, read over my lines, rehearsed the fight scenes, gotten into character, into Iago‘s body, what else could it-  Ah. Right.

For such a complicated endeavor, so often acting comes back to basics. Why was I blanking on my lines? To paraphrase a sentence, sure, that may perhaps just be a memorization issue. But blanking, that situation where all words are stopped from your breath like a cork in the esophagus, where the scene disappears and sweat creases along your brow and the whole darn room is as silent as a dead toad and the other characters become other actors, staring at you with strained hope… that’s not memorization at all. That’s losing your objective.

In the scenes where I had blanked, I hadn’t focused on my objectives, on what I wanted in the scene, so when the lines stopped coming, there wasn’t that drive of why I am saying what I am saying that brings the next line on.

Amazingly, my non-theatre savvy friends in the audience didn’t realize anything had gone wrong, though a professional actor friend of mine, had. So for most people in the crowd, they had witnessed a dramatic pause, nothing more, and apparently had nothing but praise for my performance. Whew.

When I auditioned for this show, I decided to take it as a great learning challenge – the largest role with the most lines I have ever undertaken. Believe you me, I’m learning.

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