What would you do if someone handed you a phone book and said, “Here, memorize this in one month.” That is the feeling when an actor is cast in a play by William Shakespeare. Sure the Bard wrote in English, but an English that few modern actors amateurs recognize.

That’s the way I felt when I was cast in a small role in Much Ado About Nothing being staged at the amphitheatre at Keizer Rapids Park this weekend. I enjoy Shakespeare as well as any actor, but learning the lines is another matter altogether.

I am in awe of the people playing the leads in Much Ado. Shakespeare loved to write soliloquies—long spoken arias that take quite a while to memorize, along with all the other lines.  Throw in the blocking of the and you’ve got yourself some hard work.

Memorizing lines is nothing like memorizing other things in daily life such as phone numbers or passwords. Those are easy. Learning page after page of a play takes dedication, desire and, of course, repetition. An actor goes through the script finding all the lines of their character. And then the real work begins: reading the lines over and over, trying to capture all that Shakespearean language in their brain, hoping it stays there and is not pushed out by additional lines.

Each actor has their own process in learning lines. For some it’s repeating them alone. Others recruit the help of a friend or family member to help by reading the lines of other characters.

Though my part in Much Ado is not big, my character has lines scattered throughout the play.  I have to set the right tone for the character depending on the scene. I have to be jovial in one scene, violently angry in another. I have to do this while remembering lines written more than 500 years ago. Anyone who has a passion for the English language cannot help but be smitten with Shakespeare’s writings. It’s another thing completely to learn the lines. Speaking the Bard’s words feels unnatural, but if not spoken exactly as written they lose all meaning.

Being ‘off book’ means that the rehearsing actors have memorized their lines. Shakespeare doesn’t make it easy, even for the most legendary of  actors. At this point we all know our lines and our blocking. The final days of rehearsal are used for fine-tuning the show and solidifying our characters.

Everything that comes after one memorizes their lines is pretty much gravy. Adding little tics here and there, deciding how their character moves on the stage—all the fun stuff. It is certainly a sense of accomplishment when an actor learns their lines. I always kicked my heels up when I could say my lines without my script.

I didn’t have to memorize a phone book but at the beginning, learning my lines was just as daunting.

(Lyndon A. Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Keizertimes.)