Broadway actor Jason Butler Harner is no stranger to long, dense dialogue—from Tom Stoppard’s epic The Coast of Utopia to the current production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which he plays the fearsome Reverend Samuel Parris. We spoke after a preview performance of the latter at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Brent: How did you memorize your lines for this role?
Jason: From the first rehearsal we had to be off book. That’s pretty demanding. As for memorization techniques, I have many. These days I focus a lot on alliteration.
Brent: By repeating the phrases out loud?
Jason: I write out the first letter of every word and all punctuation. The punctuation is very important; it provides structure.
Brent: Give me an example.
Jason: One of my lines is “Out of here—out of my sight!” That works out to O O H — O O M S !
Brent: What fascinating shorthand! Have you always done this?
Jason: As I get older, past 40, memorization gets harder. In college I could flip through all my lines while walking from home to class.
Brent: But then, you were 19.
Jason: Don’t remind me!
Brent: What about associating your lines with physical markers on stage?
Jason: Nah, I don’t do that. I’ve tried, but it just makes me aware that I’m acting. I get too self-conscious, too into my own head.
Brent: That’s unusual. You must have other anchors.
Jason: Well, you certainly hear more the more you do a play. And you become aware of echoes, the repetition of patterns.
Brent: Like your alliteration approach.
Jason: Right, they form a sort of rhythm. It’s fun to echo the words. My character, Rev. Parris, says a lot of “surely” and “some.” Throughout the play, words ricochet among the characters. You hear a lot of “black” and “white”—“blacken my face,” “whiten my name,” for example.
Brent: Interesting. It’s almost like freestyle Shakespearean meter.
Jason: The language is more contemporary, not archaic.
Brent: Where did you study acting?
Jason: VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Since you mention Shakespeare, I’ll tell you a funny story. I had a teacher named Janet Rodgers who lived and breathed Shakespeare. One morning she woke up and could speak only in iambic pentameter. She had to go to a doctor to snap out of it. It’s true; you can look it up!
Brent: I believe you! Last question, what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten about how to learn your lines?
Jason: Great way to end! There’s a wonderful video interview with Peter O’Toole that I saw on Facebook. He says, “The old-fashioned word for it was study. You go alone, you have no observer, no interlocutor. An unobserved, uninhibited private study is the backbone of any fine actor or actress.”
Brent: Thank you, Jason. You radiate such fierce intensity on stage, but you’re really easygoing in person.
Jason: Thank you for taking an interest in what I do and seeing the play.