A stage and screen actor, playwright, and voiceover artist, Noni Stapleton is a force to be reckoned with. Noni recently wrapped up Charolais, a one-woman show she wrote and starred in Off-Broadway. Her character, Siobhan, wields a bloody meat cleaver that may have been used to off either a prized Charolais cow that her boyfriend cherishes or the domineering mother of said boyfriend. With her lilting Irish brogue, she keeps the audience in suspense until the end.
Noni shuttles back and forth between Dublin and New York for her acting and writing work. We were introduced in the Hudson Valley through the actor Michael Rhodes, with whom she has performed on stage.
Brent: Thanks for talking with me, Noni! What's the most challenging role you've ever prepared for in terms of memorization?
Noni: I’m generally really lucky in that I don't have much difficulty in memorizing lines. The hardest roles I’ve had to prepare have actually been those that are badly written.
Brent: That seems to be a recurring theme with other actors I’ve spoken to, including Jake Epstein.
Noni: Well-written scripts naturally pay attention to intention and motivation. It’s clear why you are saying what you are saying, so they are obviously easier to learn. A substantial part of the work is done for you.
Brent: Of course. Some actors, like Jeremy Davidson, have told me it’s easier to learn lines for the stage rather than the screen. Do you find that true?
Noni: When you get a part—usually odd TV or soap roles—they can sometimes feel very clunky and take way longer to go in. Plus, you have to learn screen lines in a vacuum. You generally don't get rehearsal time on set, so you have to have them off. I’m much quicker at learning lines than I am in rehearsals, so theater scripts go in very quickly.
Brent: When you wrote Charolais, how much were you guided by the story you wanted to tell vs. the need to memorize it? Since it was your own work and there were no other actors, did you stick to the script or allow yourself to change the lines during the show's run?
Noni: I didn't give ANY consideration about the need to memorize it at all. It was all about the story and how to manipulate the audience. I was writing purely from my gut and am sure I was operating on the notion that “I am good at learning lines.” So, yeah, I didn't give it a second thought. However, when I came to rehearsals, it proved one of the toughest parts I ever had to learn. Because I wrote it, I knew its rhythm. Every time I swapped a word or flipped a sentence, it would drive me mad, and I would stop myself in mid-flow.
Brent: Charles Busch mentioned this as well. When you perform your own work, you’re tempted to keep tinkering with it, and that can throw off your flow. h
Noni: The way I learn lines is to figure out what I am doing in rehearsals and then they go in no bother. So when I kept stopping during the action, it meant I was taking way longer to figure out what I was doing. Consequently, it took an age to get it ingrained!
Brent: At least it’s a one-person show, so if you do improvise, it’s not affecting other actors.
Noni: I am the only actor on stage, but I always stick to the script. The performance can change but the script is always the same—unless I mess up. But again, it’s only a word or a line that might come out wrong. Then I’m back to what I wrote. Once or twice, something totally mad happens.
Brent: Like what?
Noni: Two cows walked on stage at a festival I was performing at in Dingle in County Kerry (I was doing the play in a cattle mart). You have to react to what’s actually happening. I believe I did improvise a line or two and possibly added some expletives on that occasion!
Brent: Do you have a general process for learning a part, or does it depend on the role?
Noni: I always wait until I am in rehearsals before I learn any lines. Lots of directors want you to learn them and have them almost off before you step into the rehearsal room. I’ve learned over the years not to bother arguing anymore and to just do it my way. The lines go in in an instant when I have rehearsed the scene with another actor few times because it is only then that I know what I am doing—and why I am doing it.
Brent: You are bold! That must annoy the heck out of the directors. There is sense, though, in what you say. Learning the lines in the company of the actors in the physical space where you’ll be performing has huge benefits.
Noni: Yes, sure I do a certain amount of “table work.” But overthinking the part can lead to making decisions in a vacuum that you have to unlearn when you are making the play in a rehearsal room with other collaborators. The same is true for me if I try to learn the lines with no intention behind them. I can’t do it. I always make decisions. What’s the point of doing that in a room by myself? So what do I use? Repetition, I suppose. I rehearse them and they go in.
Brent: Repetition is key. What about word play or visualization?
Noni: If I am tripping over a fiddly bit, then visualization can be helpful or making the associations. In Charolais there is a sequence that runs, “Poor her! How would she hold her head up? Hadn’t she raised him better? His father would be ashamed.” No matter what I did I always tripped over them until my director pointed out that the letter H was the link. Poor HER, HOW would she…HADN’T she...HIS father... As soon as I saw that link, I never fumbled it again.
Brent: Awesome! Alliteration as an ally!
Noni: Also sometimes memorization has lots to do with where I am on stage. I know what is coming next literally because of where I am or what change of lights or sound cues have taken place. If I forget my lines on stage, those factors can trigger them.
Brent: Indeed. The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew that connecting scripts and speeches to physical places is a powerful way to memorize. One actor, Nate Miller, told me about how he creates a memory palace.
Brent: I understand that you have performed in both English and Irish Gaelic. Does the nature of either language influence how you learn your part?
Noni: It’s kind of difficult to explain, but I’d say mostly I operate the same way in Irish and English. Sometimes though cause I am not fluent in Irish, I have to learn the music of a phrase. Knowing what each word means won’t be helpful, but getting the intention again is key because often the language is very lyrical.
Brent: It sounds as though you’ve gotten more confident over time with Irish.
Noni: The first time I performed in Irish was terrifying. I wasn’t entirely sure if something went wrong or if I forgot a line that I would be able to recover. So I suppose I had to be word perfect out of terror. I did have friends and the other cast members run lines with me and stop me every time I got something wrong. Rehearsal, intention, repetition, and play—I think that is my method.
Brent: Thank you so much for being so generous with your time and experience. You are a consummate storyteller.
Noni: Thank you! I hope this is helpful and makes sense!
See the full span of Noni's work—including a video excerpt from Charolais—on her website.