James Gleason is simply divine as the angel Gabriel in the hilarious Broadway production of An Act of God, starring Sean Hayes as The Almighty. The Los Angeles–based performer traces his thespian roots back to the Groundlings improv troupe. An actor, playwright, and voiceover artist, he boasts impressive credentials on stage and screen in comedy, dramas, and everything in between. We talked about the challenges of memorization and what to do when your mind goes blank on stage.
Brent: What's the most challenging role you've ever prepared for in terms of memorization?
James: I did a production of The Weir by Conor McPherson at the Geffen Playhouse in LA. I was the standby for John Mahoney [from the TV show “Frasier”] for the lead role of Jack. Since John was doing “Frasier” at the time, I was contracted to do the role when John was off filming. However, since John was the actor hired to play the role in the production, I received minimal rehearsal.
Brent: That must have put you at a disadvantage.
James: This is very difficult material with an Irish brogue, and you never leave the stage for the entire show. I have never worked harder in my life. I worked on my own every chance I got.
Brent: You must have run lines with others, right?
James: I was blessed to have a line coach named Louis Turenne who helped me. Louis volunteered his time and spent hours with me every day—explaining the dialogue, drilling the words to make sure they were exact, and being a wonderful moral support. Without his hard work, I’m not sure I could have done this role.
Brent: So everything went swimmingly?
James: Here’s the rest of the story. I go on the last preview because John is working. We did a run-through in the afternoon, and I was letter perfect. That night I am on for the first time. We start, and for the first five minutes I am sailing along. I’m very confident. I remember turning up stage to look at the something and saying to myself, “I know this material cold.” I turned around, and I was completely up. No idea of the next line!
Brent: Good God! What did you do next?
James: I looked at the other actor in the play, he looks at me: nothing. I look at the audience: nothing. In my head it felt like three hours, but it was only maybe ten seconds. I finally just started talking. I made no sense in terms of the play, but I stayed in character, and then all that training and hard work paid off. The lines returned, and off we went.
Brent: Ideally, you took a deep breath at some point during those harrowing moments. What you learn from this experience?
James: The lesson is “don’t ever assume you know it.”
Brent: Some actors use visualization techniques to associate dialogue with a physical part of the stage. Do you ever do that?
James: The beauty of rehearsal is that always gives you points of reference that help with lines and memorization. A glass may remind you of a speech about drinking or a chair of a long journey you were on and now you are happy to be home. Everything in the rehearsal process is part of learning a role.
Brent: What’s the best advice you can give performers who need to memorize their lines?
James: Nothing replaces hard work. I know that sounds trite, but the more time you spend on a script, the more you will get out of it, and the more an audience will enjoy the performance. Know the material so you can do it in your sleep, and then work on it some more. The goal is to live as the character; the lines are only the facility to bring the character to the audience. This is what being a professional is all about.
Brent: Thank you, James. It’s been a thrill to talk with you. You’ve made me feel like I’ve been right alongside you on stage, during both your happiest and scariest moments.
James: I am glad you are happy. Good luck with your book. I hope you sell a million!
Read the New York Times review of An Act of God, which runs through Labor Day at the Booth Theatre.