Already a Broadway veteran at the age of 29, Jake Epstein originated the role of Gerry Goffin in the hit Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, starred as Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and toured with national productions of Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Billy Elliot. A native of Canada, he’s also known for his role as Craig Manning in that country’s popular television series, “Degrassi.” We talked after his performance in the recent Off-Broadway production of Straight and continued our conversation after his return to Toronto.
Brent: Hi, Jake. Thanks so much for agreeing to answer some questions.
Jake: You’re welcome. I've been reading your book little by little, and I'm finding it all very fascinating.
Brent: Well, thank you! You’re very kind. Tell me, what is the most demanding role you ever had to prepare for in terms of memorization, and how did you do it?
Jake: It's hard to remember exactly which role was the hardest to memorize, but probably memorizing Shakespeare in theatre school.
Brent: Any play in particular?
Jake: We did several Shakespeare plays, but I remember playing Macduff in Macbeth and having such a hard time remembering all of his lines. Performing Shakespeare can sometimes feel like you're speaking a different language unless you really take the time to fully understand everything you're saying.
Brent: This is similar to what your Straight co-star Jenna Gavigan told me: you must be clear on what your character means to say.
Jake: Yes, that was the key for me—clarity of thought helped me remember. When I spent the time to truly understand each line, then I found the memorization became much easier.
Brent: Have you ever worked on a show with frequent rewrites, new material, and rearranged sequences?
Jake: Before playing Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway, we had an out-of-town tryout in San Francisco. The purpose of this is to work out all the kinks before heading to a less forgiving New York City. During previews, we were given new pages for every single show—and not just line changes, but completely rewritten scenes! We were even given a new second act one day and were expected to have it memorized and ready to go for the following night in front of a thousand people.
Brent: Sounds intense! How did you keep the most current version in your head?
Jake: Keeping the latest draft fresh in my head was incredibly difficult! Luckily, my girlfriend flew into town to visit, and every night after the show she would help me memorize the new lines for the following evening. Repetition probably helped me the most.
Brent: I remember learning that in an improv class, especially when making up song lyrics on the fly: “repetition is your friend, repetition is your friend.”
Jake: So true. I would just keep repeating the lines over and over and over until I knew them. I found it was easier to memorize when I had another person there to communicate with—very different from saying the lines to yourself in a mirror.
Brent: Good point. We are social animals, and person-to-person experiences are still much more visceral and memorable.
Jake: I don't know if got any better at the actually memorization, but I made sure to give myself the time to learn the lines; and usually, with a night’s sleep, I'd wake up and know them a little bit better.
Brent: What else can you tell me about the relationship between being in character and memorizing material?
Jake: I always find it interesting that when a script is good, it's easy to memorize. But when the dialogue is awkward, not believable, and I don't connect to it, I find it impossible to memorize. Even though I like to repeat the lines over and over, I think that what I am actually trying to memorize are the thoughts the character has in the scene. If I know the thoughts, and know the lines well enough, then it's usually easy to learn. But when I don't understand or believe the thoughts, it's almost as if there's nothing my brain can latch onto. All of a sudden, the lines become just words, and not complete thoughts.
Brent: I hear this often from actors, that being in character goes hand in hand with memorization. If you know your objective in a scene, that informs your function. And once you find the logic in the lines, memorization goes much faster.
Jake: Well said.
Brent: I’m grateful to Kate Wetherhead for that insight. It no doubt becomes second nature to professional actors like you. Thanks for being so generous with your time.
Jake: It’s been a pleasure.