Stage actor Michael Rhodes is also the artistic director of the Tangent Theatre Company in Tivoli, NY. His impressive list of regional theater credits runs the gamut from Shakespeare to Albee to Beckett. Here, he offers deep, practical insights into memorization, character, overcoming forgotten lines, the power of breathing, and what to do with your hands while giving a speech.
Brent: How do you approach memorizing lengthy dialogue?
Michael: The easiest way for me to memorize longer passages is by determining the logic of why these particular words are being said. It's primarily analyzing speech patterns as well as thought patterns; what key words, thoughts, or actions in the text lead into the following sentence? Sometimes, it's not easy.
Brent: In what play did you find this difficult?
Michael: When I did The Zoo Story, my character had a complex 20-plus-minute monologue. It was extremely difficult for me at the time, and left me raging as I tried to learn it because there didn't seem to be a logic to some of the jumps in the character's thought pattern. But once I stopped trying to just learn the words and instead began to chart not just "what" was being said, but also my interpretation of "why" my character was saying this—and making decisions on what specific word in the text connected to the following character thought—the entire monologue began to make sense and opened a door to Edward Albee's amazing command of language. I can probably still recite it all to this day.
Brent: Does being an actor make it easy for you to do public speaking as Tangent Theatre Company’s Artistic Director?
Michael: I'm a pretty big introvert, which may be ironic for an actor, and when I have someone else's lines to say, pretending to be someone else, I'm okay in front of a crowd because I have something so specific—words and actions—to concentrate on during the play. But as Artistic Director of Tangent, I often have to be "myself" and speak in front of groups and audiences. There is always that panic of "what am I talking about?" before going in front of the crowd. But I take a breath and let it out (the exhalation is important to release tension) and then ask myself "why am I talking?" That's an easier answer because I'm reminded why I'm there, and that informs the “what.”
Brent: How have you or another actor recovered when your mind has gone blank on stage?
Michael: I think every actor has more of these than they'd like to admit. Going up on a line is inevitable. The tiniest thing can distract and suddenly you're adrift. The language in the play Doubt, Tangent's first production in Tivoli, is so lean and tightly constructed to drive the play forward, that even a single skipped word could derail us and we'd be lost.
Brent: What you’re saying holds particularly true for Shakespeare.
Michael: I remember a production of The Tempest many years ago and I was playing Prospero. I was in the middle of a scene with the actress playing my daughter. I'm delivering a certain passage of lines (I clearly remember her back was to me and we were downstage facing the audience), the words were flowing and, in my mind, I suddenly see a road sign in the distance. Still speaking—it was a long, Shakespearean passage—I could see that the approaching mental road sign read "You Don't Know Any Lines Past This Point."
Brent: Yikes! What did that feel like?
Michael: Terror, of course. But I kept going. Just as I was about to pass the imaginary sign, there was a word—and I can't remember the word, unfortunately, as this was over 20 years ago now—that sparked the "why" that led to the next sentence, and I made it through the rest of the passage.
Brent: Any advice for what anyone should do in that situation?
Michael: Any actor will tell you that when you go up on a line in a scene, breathe. Take that moment (and that second or two feels like an ungodly 15 minutes of dead silence on stage), look at your scene partner, take a breath, think about the circumstance of the scene, and usually the line comes back to you.
Brent: In what show did this practice work for you?
Michael: An early Tangent production in New York City was Waiting for Godot. The actor I was playing Estragon to his Vladimir skipped a page or two of the script, he realized, and blanked. He tried a line but it was too far ahead in the script to pick up. Then he tried to back up and find the line he jumped. To each of these I could only give a tiny shake of my head. Ordinarily, when your partner doesn't know where they are, you try and feed them a clue but you just can't improvise Beckett and I could only watch helplessly. Eyes wide and locked on each other, he took that moment, took a breath, and gingerly tried a line, and he started to find his footing and we were back on track.
Brent: Your experience speaks to the value of knowing the other characters’ lines as well as your own so that you know your cues. On stage you are each other’s safety nets.
Michael: He and I still say it is the most present we have ever been in a moment on stage.
Brent: I want to ask you about using your imagination to get into character.
Michael: I always use my imagination. I have to put myself into those characters’ shoes (literally: the shoes are always an early key for me), think about those circumstances the character is going through and, first, find any personal similarities to past experiences. Then I imagine not just myself in that situation but start building from there, imagining a reality of those circumstances, and that provides a great key for me to play a character, both internally and with my scene partner(s), which hopefully sparks some life into the dynamics of the play.
Brent: What are some actions that you’ve taken to makes those fictional experiences more vivid?
Michael: I can try many things to find keys to open all those internal doors looking for my click for the character. I've gone to museums to try and find a painting that I felt expressed my character; not so much a literal interpretation of the character, but something that I could feel that captured the essence of who I was playing (Pollock for The Zoo Story, the dogs playing poker for American Buffalo). I've written histories for my characters, we would improvise situations between characters from before the events of the play or events between scenes of the play, music to bring yourself to an emotional place, just many, many things.
Brent: Writing histories is an effective method. I heard the novelist Gillian Flynn say that, to develop the twisted psyche of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, she wrote essays that the character might have composed as a high school student.
Michael: Francis Ford Coppola would tell his actors, "Do as much preparation as you want, but when it's time to do it, forget it all." Why? Because the preparation has created the foundation you need, and there's no need to force what you're already carrying. The text and your fellow actors should take it from there.
Brent: The last area I want to explore with you is physicality. How does that inform memorization?
Michael: I recently read a great interview with an acting teacher who posits that any character's motivation/action comes from one of three places: the head, the heart, or below the belt. That informs with great simplicity where your character leads from and, suddenly, I know how to stand, walk, where the voice comes from and that, in turn, helps form and inform the inner life of a character. It's great to keep things that simple, so that you're not carrying a ton of things in your head onstage—lines, intention, posture, etc.—which leaves you open.
Brent: You have the best advice I’ve ever heard about what anyone in a public speaking role should do with their hands.
Michael: Hands are the worst. What do you do with these things? I think hands flapping about onstage usually mean an actor isn't comfortable with their lines yet. I had an actor friend who was also a teacher, and I remember a trick he told a young actor who looked like his hands were conducting a symphony during a rehearsal: just press your thumb lightly against your middle finger. The audience can't see it, and it's a simple, non-intrusive action that takes the worry of what to do with those hands away. Your hands almost instinctively drop to your sides. Suddenly, they only move when you want them to.
Brent: That’s brilliant. A recurring theme in these interviews is that mistakes can be gifts. How has this played out in your acting?
Michael: In rehearsals, some of those things work, most do not—and that's the way it should be. I always say that rehearsals are our chance to get it wrong, to get the bad choices out of the way, which eventually clears the path; I start to find my way and settle in. But sometimes the path is rocky, and that's okay. Any little techniques are designed to help us through the parts we can't easily reach.
Brent: I feel like I’ve just finished a Master Class! I can’t thank you enough for all your insights and ideas.
Michael: You are welcome. See you at the theatre!
Check out Tangent Theatre Company's season at tangent-arts.org.