Every actor will probably agree that they aren't scared of performing to an audience (unless it's an audience of actors). Nor are they scared of being asked to do crazy things on stage that they would normally never do in their everyday lives (mostly). No, the first moment of fear appears when they first look at a rehearsal schedule and see the words 'books down'. This is the point at which an actor no longer has his/her acting security blanket; they can no longer use their script at rehearsals. Sometimes this fear lies dormant; the actor being lulled into a false sense of security by what appears to be a far-off date. Other times the fear is more pressing and bowel-loosening. I have labelled the rehearsal following 'books down' as 'the rehearsal of pain'. Regardless of how well lines have been learnt and in complete ignorance to the fact that I may have gone over everything perfectly three times only ten minutes earlier, all lines get lost and scrambled in the neural pathways about five seconds before they are required to be spoken following a cue! The entire rehearsal drags-on this way; rather like a difficult tooth extraction. It's embarrassing, frustrating and, well, painful. After 'the rehearsal of pain', the brain's neurons get their act together and it's fine from then onwards. Mostly.Once upon a time in my early days of acting (I believe 'talkies' may have been new...), I used to learn my lines obsessively early and be one of those hugely annoying people (to me these days) that are off book by the second rehearsal. It didn't matter if it was a bit-role or a lead, I'd be sorted months in advance. Then something happened around five or so years ago which threw this routine into disarray. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I curse it! Suddenly I went from being a line-swot to a line-dodger. I simply couldn't learn lines without first having had a show blocked (all the stage movement being set) and run several times. This is actually a common occurrence with actors, as lines are easier to remember when associated with movements and doing specific actions. In most shows, this has worked-out well and lines have been in place ready for 'the rehearsal of pain'. Sometimes it has been a close run thing, with some scenes being 'crammed' minutes before required.
I've frequently been asked if learning long passages of dialogue is the most difficult. No, it's actually easier. Mostly. Longer dialogue usually flows, has continuity and tells a story. This makes it easier to remember and easier to recover if you lose the exact wording mid-flow. The one huge exception to this for me was learning the role of Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. I've never in my life experienced dialogue so disjointed, illogical and disconnected to the other actors' dialogue! It was a nightmare and totally impossible to learn!
No, the most difficult lines to learn are the 'one-liners'. Those single words thrown into the middle of several other actors' lines. Impossible to remember unless you learn all the other actors' lines. Then there's the 'three-rounds-rapid' lines; those ones where two or more actors are firing lines at each other quicker than they have time to think. I also mustn't forgot the 'bastard-repeats' either; lines which are repeated several times throughout a show with a tiny variation each time, thus making it impossible to remember which is which. In terms of musicals, I can say, without any doubt, that the worst for this is I'm an Ordinary Man from My Fair Lady. That particular song took me the closest I've ever been to stage fright. Three verses hideously similar; lose concentration for a second and you lose the rest of the verse! I still hadn't got it clear in my head after a solid afternoon rehearsing again and again on the day of the first performance. In the theatre, the more I thought about it, the more panicked I became. It was only by pacing the stage in the minutes running up to curtain-up that I calmed down. For anyone who has seen me pacing the stage or dressing-room before a show, this is where it finds its origins.
I write all this in the hope of giving some of you non-actors (or maybe actors too) an insight into the troubled world of theatrical line-learning. Today was 'books down' for the Shakers cast, and tomorrow is the turn of the Bouncers. Spare a thought for us tomorrow as we venture unarmed into 'the rehearsal of pain'!