John Standing—whose acting career began in the 1950s and whose most recent appearance was in the current HBO TV series Game of Thrones—comes from a long and illustrious line of performers (his mother, Kay Hammond, played literature’s most maddening ghost, Elvira, in the original stage and film versions of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit). But when it comes to that basic essential of the job, memorizing a part, he says, “there’s no trick to it. You just have to read it, read it, read it, over and over and over again, and hope some of it sticks.”
“Without question,” Standing goes on, “drying is an actor’s worst fear. The terror that you will forget your lines and feel a complete failure is always there. Thinking ahead is often the culprit. You have to be in the moment all the time.” Standing went through just such a moment at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1968, during a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. He played Algernon, and, he says, “I was worrying about the name of a county that was coming up—the right line was ‘Got nice neighbours in your part of Shropshire?’ But I was busy thinking, Is it Surrey? Somerset? What popped out of my mouth was ‘Stratfordshire,’ which, of course, isn’t a county—or anywhere at all, come to think of it.” For the rest of the play the entire cast had to repeat “Stratfordshire” whenever it came up. “At least it sounded like something Wilde might have made up,” Standing points out.
A bloody struggle
“Some people, like my son, have a photographic memory—it’s incredibly irritating,” says Standing. “But I don’t.” In fact, he finds memorizing lines “a bloody struggle.” He’s hardly alone; many actors have problems with it at least some of the time. Standing recalls, for instance, that Laurence Olivier himself had enormous difficulty memorizing lines. As a very young man, Standing had a tiny, non-speaking part in Peter Brook’s 1955 production of Titus Andronicus at Stratford, in which Olivier played the lead. The great man asked Standing to learn some of his speeches for him—”‘just in case I go up, or, as we say in England, go dry,’ Larry told me. I was carrying a spear, and I remember thinking, ‘What is all the fuss about memorizing lines?’ But of course it’s a different story when you actually have some!” And indeed one day, mid-performance, a hideous silence emanated from the great Roman general. Standing, who fortunately was positioned close by, whispered the first line to Olivier, “and he was able to go straight into the rest of it. Sometimes’s it’s there, but you just need a nudge,” he continues. “I’m not sure why, but there don’t seem to be any prompters anymore.”
Getting “off book”—i.e., rehearsing without the script in front of you—can be “quite competitive,” says Standing. “One of the nice aspects of playing in the American TV police drama NYPD Blue (he guest-starred in an episode in 2000) was that everyone was in the same boat—the producer-writer, David Milch, only gave us the script on the morning of the performance. I loved the challenge of it, though I think it was a bit wearying for the long-term cast to work that way.” And even minimal preparation is usually better than none. “The odd thing,” he remarks, “is that I’ve found if I read something right through at night, amazingly, I find my brain has taken in more than I assumed by the morning.”
Keeping the connection
The retention of a part is, it turns out, inseparable from the playing of it. For example, says Standing, “it helps to identify where you are with what you are saying. If, say, I connect that I’m starting to talk about something as I walk across the stage to the sofa, I can keep hold of that connection to get on top of my lines.” From this point of view, the more an actor has to do, the more it helps. When there are no props or special costumes, or if a scene or the play as a whole is very static, the players have to find that connection through some little movement—anything that will somehow mark the moment. “The important thing is to be aware of who you are talking to and what the emotion is at the time,” Standing adds. “Are you angry? Pleased? Frightened? That’s what you have to put in your head.” And the believability and intensity of the writing are vital. “Good writing is everything to an actor,” Standing says. For him that was the issue when he fluffed his lines in a part he had as Christopher Riley, a cynical, supercilious don, in the 2007 London production of Shadowlands, William Nicholson’s 1985 play (originally written for TV) about the writer C.S. Lewis. Despite the fact that it had won numerous awards (and was made into a successful film that starred Anthony Hopkins as Lewis), as far as Standing was concerned, it was a bust. “The dialogue was unlikely, so it was difficult,” he says. “At times I was just making it up.”
Recall through rhyme
One of Standing’s most recent gigs, “John Standing Sings Noël Coward,” was a program of 16 of Coward’s songs “with talk,” which he performed in 2009 and 2010 in various places in London, Spain and New York. “It’s difficult to do, as the lyrics are so complicated—and the comedic aspect of Coward has to be timed, but the audience mustn’t see you do it,” Standing says. “In a song like ‘I Wonder What Happened to Him’—which I do in several different voices: there’s the straight narrator at the beginning, and then the crass, military figure in India with the gin in his hand, whom I can picture—I know where the laughs are. So, for instance, at the end of the second refrain I know I’m going for ‘pigsticking’ in the penultimate line, but I have to amble up to it.”
Whatever became of old Shelley?
Is it true that young Briggs was cashiered
For riding quite nude on a pushbike through Delhi
The day the new Viceroy appeared?
Have you had any word
Of that bloke in the Third,
Was it Southerby, Sedgwick or Sim?
They had him thrown out of the club in Bombay
For, apart from his mess bill exceeding his pay,
He took to pigsticking in quite the wrong way.
I wonder what happened to him!
“The songs are beautifully written. They have complex inter-rhymes. He’s telling stories in his songs and it’s exactly the way he spoke,” says Standing, who knew Coward personally. “The intelligence and jokes are wonderful, he’s brilliantly funny. If I go into the wrong verse the pianist can just continue and I can interrupt with ‘Whoops, I think I buggered it up,’ as no one minds that kind of thing in cabaret. It hasn’t happened often and now I’m more confident. Rhyme is so much easier to learn and lovely to do.”
Staying in the moment
For Lola Peploe, an actress at the very beginning of her career, it’s a different experience. “Sometimes you think you’ve learned your lines,” she says, “and then you go up and find you haven’t learned them at all!” She went through just that terror when playing Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in a variety show—although, she adds, “I was also in denial of the weight of the role.” Peploe has done Shakespeare before—she played Helen in the British company Cheek By Jowl’s 2007 production of Cymbeline—and says that the great thing about Shakespeare for actors is that “he does it all for you. Of course, it’s the most challenging, but it’s also a gift. He tells you when to breathe right, and how to say the lines,” through both his iambic rhythm and his line breaks. “An awful modern play, with terrible lines, is going to show you up, because there’s nothing to help,” she explains. But when it comes to memorizing a part, Peploe, just like John Standing, finds there’s no substitute for endless repetition. “I pace up and down and go over it again and again until it sinks in,” she says. “I try not to struggle with it, though.” And she stresses how vital it is to stay in the moment: “It’s Important to be present. I can get so wrapped up in my lines that I can forget to listen.”
At drama school, Peploe says she was taught not to learn her lines in rote fashion, for fear she might kill her instincts. “Besides,” she says, “by rehearsal you find very few directors expect you to be off book in the beginning. In fact, they often prefer the opposite, so you can explore the text together and ideas aren’t fixed.” For auditions, however, the situation is reversed. You’re expected to know your lines, and the same goes for any TV and film work where actors have to look at the camera. “It’s so subtle that every blink matters, whereas in the theatre you can rehearse with the book in hand.”
Learning a part doesn’t lose its terrors. “I get nightmares about forgetting lines,” says Peploe. “I told my drama teacher that and she said, ‘Well done. Now you’re becoming an actress.'”
“The funny thing is,” says John Standing, “the day the play is over, I forget the whole thing. The only piece I can ever remember is the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet. I saw Private Lives not long after I did it—years ago with Maggie Smith in 1977. I sat there thinking ‘I never said that, did I?'”