Q. Smith is currently playing the role of Hannah on Broadway in the smash hit Come From Away, which puts a small Canadian town in the spotlight in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Q. has toured with the North American Broadway production of A Night With Janis Joplin, playing the roles of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. She was last seen on Broadway as the first African-American actress to play a leading role in Disney’s Mary Poppins. She has shared the stage with such luminaries as Gladys Knight, Rita Coolidge, and Wynton Marsalis, and performed at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. Q. is also a passionate educator, working to help children with behavioral problems and learning disabilities maintain their curriculum through the arts. On May 8, Q. will be doing a fundraising concert to benefit non-profits back in her native Omaha. Details HERE.
Brent: Thanks for talking with me, Q.! Tell me, what’s the most challenging role you've tackled in terms of memorization?
Q.: Come From Away as a whole has been the most challenging by far. We are an ensemble. There are not necessarily any leads. The most challenging part of the entire experience was learning the sequence of events. The show is timed out physically and script-wise: the times and dates that the events occurred, which chair goes where for which plane set up, which character am I now, and on and on.
Brent: So you’re relying more on muscle memory. And your visual and spatial memory come into play more, too. It’s not so much about the lines, is that right?
Q.: The lines weren't the difficult part. The lines only became tricky when the physical life or blocking of a character changed. I've never done a show like this. It requires your EVERYTHING. I had no exact approach. If I tried one, it would fail or change due to the next scene or an added song or whatever.
Brent: So what did you do?
Q.: I think what ultimately ended up happening was putting everything in my body and saying every move, every character, every line of song out loud when I'd rehearse by myself. It would go something like this.
Q.: "It's Tuesday morning and I'm a Newfoundlander entering the coffee shop, which is stage left. I see my friends as they enter and I sing, ‘Welcome to the land where the winters tried to kill us and we said…’ Then I walk back to the table as a Newfoundlander. I turn around and put on my glasses because I am now Hannah, and I move stage left with my arms folded.”
Brent: Smart move! Narrating your moves reinforces the trajectory of the action. Speaking your movements aloud is also a good way for non-actors to remember where they place something they tend to forget—“I’m putting my car keys on the kitchen table so I won’t forget them.”
Q.: Ha! I feel your passion for what you do!
Brent: Well, we can all learn from performing artists like you how to apply memorization to our daily lives. Another question. I assume that Come From Away underwent frequent rewrites, cuts, and additions. How did you keep track of the current version and scrub the old one?
Q.: It was hard with this one because they would cut it, then put it back a month later with a slight change—like A WORD. It would drive me crazy! But you just do. It took a lot of focus. Still does.
Brent: Anything in particular you want to mention?
Q.: There was a move that was cut where I had to grab a jacket for another actor to put on. After doing it over 250 times they cut the move, but my body still does it!
Brent: You teach as well as act. When you give master classes or run arts education workshops, what do you emphasize when teaching students how to learn their lines?
Q.: All of the things we’ve talked about—repetition, visualization, and character embodiment. Everyone learns differently. Right brain versus left brain, etc. Come From Away requires both sides of the brain. FULLY. And at ALL times. I'm a right brain gal for sure! For students, I think the character embodiment works, and so does visualizing your actions. As I said, everyone learns differently.
Brent: OK, here’s my favorite final question: What do you wish I had asked you?
Q.: Hmmmm..... how do your body and brain react when you forget a line or a song? How do you get back in the scene? I don't know how to answer that question and am very curious how others respond.
Brent: Every actor has been in that situation. A number of them I’ve spoken with have shared how they got back on track. Check out their interviews on this blog—Kendal Hartse, Michael Rhodes, Bree Elrod, James Miller, and many others.
Q. This was wonderful! Thank you! I hope you can make it to my birthday concert on May 8.
Brent: Right, you’re doing a concert at Symphony Space to benefit non-profits back in your hometown of Omaha. As it’s a Monday night, and lots of theaters are dark, you’ll be joined on stage by performers from other Broadway shows. Yes, I will be there!
Q.: Thanks for being cool!