Phillip Boykin's majestic voice is an equally splendid vehicle for opera, Broadway, and gospel. The bass-baritone just wrapped up his appearance in the critically acclaimed revival of On the Town. We spoke after one of the show's final performances.
Phillip: You want to know how I memorize my lines? It’s all auditory for me. I buy as many recordings and videos as I can, and I watch them all. As I listen to the recordings, I try to say each line before I hear it. When I can do that, I know it is sinking in.
Brent: Anyone hearing you sing can tell that you fully embody the music. Do the words come as easily as the melodies?
Phillip: Not at all, I’m dyslexic. In school, I was a slow reader because I had to straighten out the letters. Now I write every line that I sing or say in a show, real big and real clear. I record myself singing the songs with a coach and saying each line on a recorder. It's the only thing I listen to until the performance. It's on repeat.
Brent: The ritual of writing by hand, recording, listening, and repeating seems to be common among performers, whether dyslexic or not.
Phillip: I make sure I know what every word means and what it means to me. I try to understand why the writer chose the words he or she did, which usually tells me a lot about the character—where they are from and why they would say the word the writer chose.
Brent: Keep going!
Phillip: I try to see a picture of what I’m saying, as if I'm watching a movie in my head. I feel the words with my articulators, and I feel the breath I use, and I use that muscle memory as well to remember what the lines feel like. I also use stage markers for remembering. I know that when I stand in a certain place, I say a certain line.
Brent: In On The Town, the characters you play show up both on stage and out in the aisles, so you’ve got lots of locations to associate with your lines or lyrics.
Phillip: That’s true.
Brent: Here’s a different question: how are you at remembering people’s names?
Phillip: Now, names and faces, that’s something I’m naturally good at! I think of something that sounds like the person’s name, and that makes me remember it. For example, I know this guy named Will, and that sounds like “well.”
Brent: Like a wishing well?
Phillip: Exactly, a wishing well. I can picture that.
Brent: And you link the image to the person, just like you link lines of dialogue to a physical place. My image for the name Phillip is a gas pump, since it’s where you “fill up” your tank.
Phillip: I like it!
Brent: Thank you so much for your time.
Phillip: Thank you for coming to the show!
Conjuring up an image for a name requires quick thinking. Actors often have stories about how quick thinking got them through a mishap on stage: forgotten lines, a costume malfunction, or something else. Phillip told Playbill magazine about a climactic fight scene in Porgy and Bess with his co-star Norm Lewis, who played Porgy. One night, the knife with which Porgy is supposed to kill Phillip’s character “skittered into the orchestra pit.” So he grabbed Porgy’s cane, pulled it to his neck, and had Porgy choke him instead of stab him.
In a future interview, we’ll learn how simple improvisational exercises can teach us how we can think faster on our feet, sharpen our powers of observation, and strengthen our ability to memorize.