Joe Chisholm plunged into the role of Alex in the intimate three-man play Afterglow, having seen it once and rehearsed it twice. If you’ve ever wondered how actors master a role in record time, read on.
Brent: What's the most challenging role you've ever prepared for in terms of memorization?
Joe: It was the last Off-Broadway play I did, She Has A Name. I stepped in last-minute and had a very compressed amount of time to learn a lead role in a 120-page two-act play. I needed to be off book for the first rehearsal. The stress was real. But I am the kind of person that performs best under pressure and in crunch time.
Brent: What’s your approach?
Joe: I memorize through repetition, from acting beat to the next, and then work backwards through a scene once I have it down. It’s mind-numbing, but effective.
Brent: Stepping in last minute seems to be a theme with you. You recently joined the cast of Afterglow to replace one of the three actors. How did you master the role of Alex so quickly? You told me you watched it once and had just two rehearsals!
Joe: I have a quick memory, and that helped me to pick up the lines fast. The beautiful thing about the human brain is that when necessity strikes, the organic mechanism adapts and steps up to meet those needs.
Brent: Most people never have their minds put to the test like that—or flee from the opportunity. Does your memory work like this in other parts of your life?
Joe: Now, ask me my best friend’s cell phone number, or even what day of the week it is, and I will draw a blank. But give me a three-page Shakespearean monologue and 45 minutes, and I’ll get it learned.
Brent: Different parts of the brain are involved with those types of information. That, and nobody bothers to learn phone numbers anymore. Tell me more about how you get into character.
Joe: My process when attacking a character tends toward old-school Stanislavski. It was the core of my training in London and Moscow. So there is a lot of homework I do before stepping foot in a rehearsal studio, so when I walk in I can forget about all of it and just play. Specificity begets freedom.
Brent: Having seen you transform into such a believable character, I’m not surprised you’re a method actor. You seemed to grasp so deeply what drove your character and what he was after, and the emotion followed from there. And you internalize the lines through constant repetition, which you mentioned earlier.
Joe: In terms of line preparation, it is a lot of repetition. I have a nearly photographic memory, which can be a blessing and a curse, but it helps to absorb the lines quickly and allows me to then move on and focus on the character and relationships, which in turn solidify the line memorization. Once you know to whom you are speaking, why are you speaking to them, and what you want from them, then the lines tend to fall into place behind intention.
Brent: You got your undergraduate degree in Musical Theatre at the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music, which is known for its outstanding faculty. Then you trained in London and Moscow. Not many American actors these days get to do theater in Russia. What are your most memorable experiences?
Joe: This answer could go on forever. Moscow is an amazing place. Despite the horrific political atmosphere that rules the country, the people and culture themselves exist totally removed and unattached from the government’s doings. The fascinating thing about Moscow is the sense of history there and within the people—the fact that these people have barely changed in the many centuries they have existed. Their strength and resilience are staggering. Russian culture has endured rather than evolved.
Brent: “Endured rather than evolved.“ What a striking observation!
Joe: Their respect for the arts is one of the most incredible things I have very witnessed. It is bone deep in their culture.
Brent: Right, one thinks of the Hermitage Museum, Bolshoi Ballet, Chekov plays, and other high-profile commitments to the visual and performing arts.
Joe: Everyone knows Chekhov and goes to the theatre and the ballet and opera. There will always be twenty-minute standing ovations where audience members bring bouquets of flowers to their favorite performers. It is a sense of love for the arts and a belief that art is the true backbone of their entire culture that is breathtaking and something I have never seen anywhere else in the world. It was inspiring beyond belief.
Brent: Well, what a privilege to have that experience. You are truly gifted and fortunate. Thanks so much for sharing yourself with my readers. I wish you continuing success and look forward to seeing you again on stage.
Joe: Thanks, Brent!
Afterglow is enjoying an extended run at the Loft at the Davenport Theatre. Learn more and find tickets at afterglowtheplay.com.
Some of Joe’s other favorite roles include Chris in Miss Saigon, Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid, Whizzer in Falsettos, Fredrick in A Little Night Music, and Orsino in Twelfth Night. Learn more about him on his website.