Joseph Medeiros is an actor and poet in New York City. He is the founder of The Study, a space focused on process and inspiration. His goal is to make art a potent and important part of our life experience.
Brent: What's the most demanding role you ever had to prepare for in terms of memorization?
Joe: One of the trickiest pieces of text I've had to memorize was a short monologue in Italian. I don't know Italian, so I looked up and translated all the words and thought that would be enough. But as I was memorizing, I realized I was trying to do it more by rote, by the sounds of the words rather than by meaning. I couldn't think in English and keep track of what was coming out of my mouth in Italian without a lot of pauses and thinking and literally translating.
Brent: That sounds like a three-ring circus going on in your head. And you had to be in character, too.
Joe: Exactly. This wasn't even taking into account the fact that I had to act the words as well, and have a deep emotional and visceral connection to the words as they were coming out of my mouth. Also, while I was saying the words in Italian, other actors in the scene were translating into English, phrase by phrase, so I was constantly being hit with my native language, which only made my brain want to ditch the foreign Italian sounds and grab on to what was familiar and easier for it.
Brent: So how did you make it work?
Joe: My delivery at this point was choppy and not terribly compelling. So, being a bit of an amateur philologist, my solution was to divorce the words from their English counterparts in my head by taking every word of the monologue and pulling it apart and discovering, or uncovering, its etymology, thus creating a personal connection and relationship with each word on its own terms. Almost like taking each one out for a coffee date, asking it where it's from, about its family, what it does for a living, and what its hopes and dreams are.
Brent: As a linguist myself, this actually seems very appealing. Share an example of a word’s backstory.
Joe: One of the first pieces of the monologue had the phrase “la supplico,” which has translations like “I beseech you” or “I beg you.” Not helpful. But I took the word apart and found that it was made up of the Latin prefix sub-, which means “under, at the feet of, before.” The second part of the word comes from the Latin verb plicare meaning “fold, bend, or roll up.” So the word “supplico,” this supplication, becomes an act of folding oneself at another's feet, putting oneself below another, asking to be rolled into the actions of another while allowing them to be in the superior position, “I humble myself to you and ask you to take actions on my behalf, for our wills to be knit together, and I bow to you, acknowledge that I can't do this on my own, and ask this favor of you.” Now that's a word that can be acted!
Brent: What beautiful, vivid imagery you teased out of that one small word.
Joe: It also gave something for my body to do. When I said that word in the scene, I bowed my head ever so slightly, and had my hands a little in front of me with my palms facing out and up toward the person. This word became and indicator for an entire relationship as well as a physical movement, a dance step. And this created an immediate visceral and emotional arising in my body.
Brent: So did you wind up doing this for every word in the monologue?
Joe: Yes, I did, for every single word, and in the end created a complex dance of meaning and movement, sound, sense, and action. So many words are rooted in very real, physical verbs, and the weaving together of the text in this way makes memorization almost a non-issue, nearly a byproduct of the process.
Brent: Ralph Waldo Emerson said that every word is a “frozen metaphor.” You found and distilled the poetry inside each word, and leveraged it for your interpretation. Bravo!
Joe: In performance my body danced a series of sounds, which happened to be Italian. And then the sounds themselves became a dance with my voice, literally with the muscles that move the breath and the vocal articulators, a song as a dance. There was no chance that I was going to forget those words.
Brent: I suppose you could do this for Shakespeare, Beckett, and any other work with challenging language.
Joe: Yes, I've done this for text in English too, and it works just as well.
Brent: What tricks do you have to stay focused on stage? How do you tune out audience chatter and ringing cellphones, or even backstage distractions?
Joe: That is such a great question! You know, I don't think it's necessary to tune anything out. I think the best way to deal with “unhelpful” distractions is to let them in, acknowledge them, and even let them affect what you’re doing if, in the moment, if it feeds the moment.
Brent: Really!? Help me understand how you do that.
Joe: Now, I don't mean completely break the performance, but there is a way to split your focus for a moment and become an observer while you are doing. I first became aware of this as a dancer. Ideally, when I'm dancing, I like to rehearse until the movements feel obvious and there's no need to think about what comes next, or any sort of logistical things. That way, when I perform, I can put all my focus on Dancing, on being expressive through movement.
Brent: I love how free and liberating this sounds. Still, what about focus and concentration?
Joe: This is the ideal, but there are always moments when the more analytical side has to come in; maybe I wasn't quite on balance for that turn, or I came down from that jump in a strange way and need to adjust, or another dancer is not quite on their mark and if I don't adjust one of us is going to get kicked. All of those things are a matter of safety and it behooves the dancer to be able to deal with these events, possibly make physical adjustments, but maintain the expressive continuity and integrity of the performance.
Brent: So, distraction can keep you on your toes, so to speak.
Joe: A distraction or something unexpected puts us into a heightened state where emotions and pure impulse are given more space. Why try to ignore this kind of gift if it can be of service to you as an actor?
Brent: You do make it sound like a gift. What about the irritation of the ringing cell phone coming from the audience?
Joe: Now, I wasn't there for this, but it's one of my favorite stories: an actress, whose name I can't remember, was playing Medea, and during one of her big arguments with Jason, a cell phone went off in the audience. Bad timing, right? So she paused for just a moment, then turned slowly, and continued her vituperation to Jason while looking at the audience member whose phone had gone off! So the play continued, but the obvious intrusion wasn't ignored.
Brent: What brilliant thinking on the spot!
Joe: Like you, I hate that moment as an audience member when a cell phone goes off and you get pulled away from the play, even though it's still going on and the actors are obviously aware of the ringing, but they're just continuing. Then the cell phone finally stops, and we're all a little annoyed, and we have to make an adjustment to re-engage and return to the play, and you swear you can almost see the actors breathe a sigh of relief.
Brent: And the audience breathes a sigh of relief along with the actors.
Joe: But this actress playing Medea pulled the fictive circumstances together with the realities of the moment and created a beautiful, seamless theatrical moment that could have been missed if she'd chosen to ignore it. And anger is an obvious emotion that would come up in that situation. There are a lot of different things it could bring up in the actor: a sense of sadness at the interruption, a joyful sense of the absurdness of being onstage in the first place with a large group of people watching you, or something else entirely.
Brent: When you put it that way, the intrusion almost becomes a welcome opportunity to create something new.
Joe: That’s a good point. In theatre there's this great tension on the one hand between the conservative values of repeatability, stability, and predictability that is embodied in set lines, choreography, blocking, lighting cues, and everything that makes the structure; and on the other hand, the opportunity to embrace the reality of the unpredictable, the ever-changing, the fact that the performance you are doing will never happen again, the audience will never be the same, and you'll never be the same because you aren't the same from one day to the next or even from one moment to the next.
Brent: That’s quite a paradox. It’s amazing that the show goes on at all. What do you think makes it all come together?
Joe: The tension gets resolved by using the set elements of the structure. They oppose each other, but they need each other so that the piece can be seen and experienced and enjoyed.
Brent: Beautifully put, Joe. Thank you for opening up your heart and mind and sharing your perspective. Your creative process has changed the way I’ll look at acting.
Joe: It’s been my pleasure.