Fresh off her run as the levelheaded sister Elinor in a wildly engaging production of Sense & Sensibility, Kelley Curran exudes a warm, grounded air, much like her character. Regularly performing on main stages here in New York and at such distinguished regional theaters as Shakespeare & Company, Shakespeare Theatre of DC, and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Kelley has received the “Joe Callaway Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Classic Play in NYC” and earned nominations from the Drama League and Princess Grace Awards. We spoke after one of the final performances of the Jane Austen–based play.
Brent: Kelley, thank you so much for talking with me.
Kelley: I'm so happy you were able to make the show, and even more thrilled you enjoyed it as much as you did. Indeed, it has been a whirlwind nearing the end of the run of Sense & Sensibility.
Brent: Oh, yes! Speaking of whirlwind, with all the constant character, costume, and set changes that the actors were taxed with in this production, I would have thought this would have been one of the most challenging roles you ever had to prepare for. But apparently that distinction goes to your portrayal of Anna Karenina out in Oregon.
Kelley: Preparing to play the title role in an adaptation of Anna Karenina in four days' time, while I was performing the lead role of a Shakespeare play in the evenings, was without a doubt the most challenging task I've ever faced in terms of memorization, and perhaps in terms of my entire career as an actress.
Brent: How did this come about?
Kelley: I was working at Portland Center Stage playing the role of Imogen in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. The run of Cymbeline was winding down (we had just seven performances left) when the artistic director of the same theatre asked me on a Tuesday if I would step in and take over the role of Anna Karenina in a world premiere stage adaptation that was being performed in the larger of the two performance spaces at the theatre.
Brent: Right, a world premiere that was set to open that very weekend. Flattering, but daunting!
Kelley: The great challenge being that I would have to learn the text and all the blocking for Anna Karenina in four and a half days, and be ready to perform it that Sunday night, after a closing matinee of Cymbeline that afternoon.
Brent: For some people, there’s no better motivation than being pressed for time. How did you tackle the script?
Kelley: Learning the text of Anna K. essentially just became the task of all my waking hours when I was outside of actual rehearsal for the play and my nightly performances of Cymbeline. I just put myself on an extremely regimented schedule, such that I woke five hours before rehearsal, memorized from the start of the play onward, rehearsed during the day, took an hour dinner break, memorized over dinner, performed the other play at night, came home, and continued the memorization process for two more hours before sleeping.
Brent: That sounds intense, but necessary, given the compressed time frame.
Kelley: My process for memorizing this particular time around (when I knew that I was so very limited) was very much by rote. I would learn one line, move on to the next, learn the next line, then go back say the first and second lines out loud, then learn the third line, go back and say all three lines out loud, then learn the fourth line...and onward and onward. It was tedious and by rote, but I would learn each scene like this.
Brent: What about working with other actors to cement your lines?
Kelley: Once I'd learned my lines from each scene, I then had a volunteer from the theatre available to me to speak the whole scene out loud over and over. Then I would move on to the next scene, and learn that in the same way.
Brent: Both speaking and hearing the lines are excellent forms of reinforcement. Another is writing the lines by hand out for added visuals and muscle memory. You must have done that, too.
Kelley: When my voice would get too tired to continue, or if I knew I needed to rest it, I would write the lines down with pen and paper, instead of speaking them. This way I was still forced to go word by word, thought by thought—and I could do it silently. This is a memorization technique I often use when I'm commuting on the train, or anywhere in public and I need to be learning lines. Rather than speaking them out loud and risking unnerving all the people around you, I'll write lines down to memorize them.
Brent: I wish more train commuters were as considerate as you! Do you ever use any visualization and association techniques to master your lines, or is memorization for you largely character-driven?
Kelley: Visualization as a tool for memorization sometimes does come into play as an actor, particularly if the text is on the poetic side, or filled with imagery. Personally, for me, memorization becomes deeply linked with the action of the play, and the action of the argument your character is making.
Brent: Making compelling arguments is a hallmark of Jane Austen’s strong, rational leading characters, of which Elinor is certainly one.
Kelley: All communication is an effort to understand and be understood, so if I, as an actor, have a firm grasp of the argument my character is making, or what they need to express in any given moment, it becomes easier for me to remember what the words are that articulate that need.
Brent: Absolutely. And when you fully embody your character, and the text is expertly written, the things your character can say and do follow a very logical thread.
Kelley: I imagine the same is true for most public speaking—if you know the point you're trying to make, and believe deeply in what you are saying, the words will be easier to remember, because they will be the logical and inevitable conclusion of your thoughts and feelings on a subject. On stage, the words of play (most of the time) are the articulation of the character's objective, whether opaque or transparent.
Brent: That’s very true for linear, sequential ideas in speeches as well as scripts. When a presenter like a politician or business leader has to tick off, say, ten disjointed concepts and provide additional facts, figures, and color, that’s where some other creative memory techniques can come in handy.
Kelley: That’s really interesting! Well, thank you again for coming to see the play, and for telling me about your business. I hope this has been at all helpful or useful to you, Brent!
Brent: Very much so. And remember, when you find yourself back on the West Coast, check out the incredible company at Impro Theatre. They do improvised, long-form performances of Jane Austen Unscripted. You can’t make this stuff up—but they do!
Kelley: Thank you! I can't wait to check them out when I'm next out in LA.