Bree Elrod has appeared in several plays Off-Broadway, most notably in the one-woman show My Name is Rachel Corrie, under the direction of Alan Rickman. She has zigzagged around the country to perform in regional theater productions of Angels in America, Our Town, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, A Streetcar Named Desire, various Shakespearean works, and more. You may have seen her in the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island, in which she played an intensely haunting mental patient. She returns often to her native Kansas City to act and recently took time out from rehearsals for A Christmas Carol at Kansas City Rep to talk with me about how she fully inhabits her characters.
Brent: Hello, Bree! Thank you for speaking with me. When I interviewed the playwright Rinne Groff a couple of months back, she was insistent that you and I talk about memorization. Rinne told me about a 10-minute monologue that your character had in the middle of her play Fire in Dreamland. Apparently, the lines were rewritten almost nightly, and yet she says you mastered the new version every time without a hitch. How did you do it?
Bree: Let me first just say that Rinne Groff is a wonderful playwright, and learning her writing was an absolute treat. With each rewrite, Rinne explained clearly why she was altering things. Being an actor herself, Rinne said she understood the pressure of learning new material and assured me that she wouldn't be offended or heartbroken if I wasn't able to get all of the changes incorporated immediately. This greatly put me at ease and helped create a more relaxed and open space within me as I worked on incorporating her new text. I went over each change slowly and out loud several times and then got on my feet to "get them in my body." That definitely helped the memorization come more easily. The changes made so much sense.
Brent: So was this the most challenging role you've ever prepared for in terms of memorization?
Bree: The most challenging role I've ever prepared was the role of Rachel Corrie in My Name is Rachel Corrie, a one-woman show that jumps back and forth in time and space. I was fortunate enough to have Alan Rickman direct me in this show, and he was incredibly supportive as far as memorization was concerned. He knew learning a whole play was a large task and gave me the support and space I needed to find my way through.
Brent: Wow, what a treat to work with someone of Rickman’s caliber! What did you learn in that collaboration?
Bree: What helped me most technically in memorizing was breaking the script down into "bite-sized" sections. I started at the beginning and worked my way through the play a few pages at a time. As I worked, I broke down those pages into specific thoughts, beats, and objectives.
Brent: Beautiful. Tell me more.
Bree: The more specific I could get, the easier it was to memorize the text. I wouldn't move on to the next pages until I felt I had a firm grasp on the few I was focusing on. Working on investigating a few pages at a time made the task of learning a whole play far less daunting. I learned as much text as I could each day, and when my brain started to feel sluggish, I stopped. I never wanted to push too much in at once.
Brent: It’s good to know your limits. How much does the content influence your process?
Bree: I should say on a related note that I find that learning good material is a heck of a lot easier than learning bad stuff. Great writing is a way of opening up your brain, saying to yourself that you need for it to go into your head, and that you’re excited for it to go into your head. I prefer to think of it as “learning” and not “memorizing.” The lines actually go into my whole body; it’s like flipping a switch.
Brent: You do live and breathe your character! Do you ever use any visualization and association techniques to master your lines, or is memorization for you largely character-driven?
Bree: Sometimes. It really depends. I think my memorization work tends to be largely character-driven. If I understand why my character says what she/he/it says, then memorizing becomes far easier. I try to learn the thoughts, the ideas, and the words all at once. But I will say that sometimes thinking, "oh there are three ‘w’ words in this upcoming line" can help when memorizing.
Brent: Right, that’s something Rinne brought up: that some playwrights will actually put sequential information in alphabetical order—like “deeply, madly, truly”—to help the actor out. What about the physicality of writing out your lines?
Bree: Sometimes I like to write out my lines. It helps me give focus to each word's significance (or insignificance) as I am memorizing. And I try to get on my feet as quickly as I can when learning lines, so I feel that I am getting the text into my whole body.
Brent: Feeling the lines with your whole body is clearly fundamental for you.
Bree: I sometimes try to find gestures to investigate a word or feeling. I seldom end up using these in the performance, but it helps me explore the text, not just cerebrally, but physically as well. Basically, I like to use a variety of techniques so that the lines eventually become more than just "words" and "text"; they begin to feel that they are an integrated part of me. There are also recording apps that you can use to record the lines of the other characters in the scenes. That has been very useful to me.
Brent: Indeed. The actor David Josefsberg told me about the app Rehearsal in his interview. It seems to be getting a lot of traction. Tell me, how do you keep your lines fresh in your head during the run of a show?
Bree: I try to go through my lines each day at some point before a performance. Often, during these casual solo run-throughs, I make discoveries about my character or the scene that I've missed during rehearsals.
Brent: Rehearsals are a fascinating process. Another actor I spoke with, Michael Rhodes, said that “rehearsals are our chance to get it wrong, to get the bad choices out of the way, which eventually clears the path.” To your point, it’s an opportunity for new discoveries.
Bree: That’s true. Also, going through the lines in this way assures me that all the words are indeed within me and that later I will be able to easily summon them and allow them to fall out in a spontaneous and interesting way. Well, that's the hope anyways!
Brent: Even when you’re in a straight play, I know that you use music to help you get into character. Can you speak to that?
Bree: I like to meditate before shows, as well as listen to music. I make musical mixers for my characters with songs that emotionally resonate with my character. There’s this amazing part in a play I did where my character roars like a lion, so I put on some lion-themed music. It helped me get my mind on the place where the character is. The more you invest and stay curious, the better.
Brent: And you went even further when you were in A Streetcar Named Desire, right?
Bree: Doing Streetcar, I immersed myself in a healthy way. I would get up, buy some Café du Monde coffee, listen to jazz…these things put me in the world where I needed to be—where my character was.
Brent: Your brother Carson Elrod is also an actor. Do you each approach your work in the same way?
Bree: My brother and I have very different styles. We were in a Molière show together and came to our roles with very different approaches, even though we’d gone through the same theater program at NYU. He doesn’t need back work or extraneous stuff; he just throws himself into the role. But I need more. For example, I’m playing Mrs. Cratchit in A Christmas Carol, and I want to know more about her back story. Who is she? What happened to her during her life that she became who she is?
Brent: Well, thank you, Bree. It’s been delightful talking with you. Your passion for your work is infectious. Acting is clearly in your blood.
Bree: I have to feel what I’m acting, and honor it. I put pressure on myself to do the best that I can. That’s my job. Not I have to do this role, but I get to do this role.