“Need the two of you to do a scene from Tone Clusters for May 4th. What do you want to do? Needs to be 5-7 minutes. Ellen.” It seemed like a simple enough email to figure out. The play is basically a two-hander (two character play). Alan and I are the two hands performing it – Joyce Carol Oates’ amazing play Tone Clusters – this season at Theatricum Botanicum. May 4th was to be a fabulous celebration of the 40th year that the theatre had been in operation officially as a theatre. Each of the plays of the season – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming Of The Shrew, The Royal Family, Merlin and Tone Clusters would have scenes performed for the approximately 300 folks who would be there to celebrate with us that day. I found a great piece of one of the nine scenes that make up the play for the event. Great “sneak preview.” Funny, provocative and with that little touch of “holy smokes!” that would make people want to come back and see us in it. It was easily three weeks away. Plenty of time for Alan and me to rehearse and get it ready to share with the crowd.
So why was I as terrified as I was thrilled?
The lines. Oh, yes. When I was a kid I used to think it was funny when people would say, “How did you memorize all those lines?” It came to me as easily as breathing. And then after I was 26 and had Jordan it was still easy, but more like as easily as a dolphin breathes. You know – it was a conscious voluntary thing rather than an involuntary instinct. And then it was less like breathing and more like huffing and puffing. Proving that it was age and not motherhood that was screwing with my ability to get the words in my head. And then it gradually became a little like watching the flat line in the monitor in the hospital on an hour long medical drama. Apply the paddles a few times and – oh, yes – there they are! The Words! Right in my head!
Now, you have to understand that when I say “the lines,” I mean “all the lines that everyone says in all the scenes I am in.” Many actors just memorize their own lines and their cues (the half line that some other actor says just before they themselves have a line). I’ve never been like that. I have to know ALL OF IT. I have to have all the lines in my head, in the back of my skull. Otherwise I am not free just to “act.” I feel like I am like a slave to “what’s next…?” I can’t bear that. It means being earthbound instead of flying. It means not operating on all cylinders, taking in whatever comes – be it a move by another actor that needs to be “played with” or an audience response that needs to be leaned into or the sheer delight of getting a brand new idea of how to say the line in this moment because it is coming to me as if I am thinking of it for the first time.
And then as I was torturing myself with Joyce Carol Oates’ evasive haunting lines with “come on, you can do it! For heaven’s sake you have been doing this for 56 of your 61 years!” I thought of…drum roll…all the trial lawyers I have the privilege of working with.
I watch the same process when someone is getting ready to try a case. What lawyer worth his or her salt doesn’t want to “have the case” perfectly in head and hand so that he or she can just “play it” as it comes out? You know – what one of my old acting teachers, Alan Fletcher, used to call “pre-planned spontaneity.”
And once again I remembered what lawyers and actors will forever have in common. And once again I was humbled by how lawyers have so much pressure on them to be perfect since at least one other person’s future is sitting squarely on their shoulders as they get the case in their heads. And all I have to do is not screw up too badly in front of 300 people. And suddenly the words were in my head. All the words.
May 4th I flew. I soared. I played. I reacted. I was operating on all cylinders. I leaned into the audience as they gasped and laughed and were taken by surprise. And I did the acting dance of partnership with he who is my perfect scene partner on stage and in life. I was having the time of my life as I only can onstage and in my element.
If you are a trial lawyer and you are reading this and you have shown me your soft vulnerable underbelly in a workshop or a case or a conversation or even a tweet – thanks. I needed that.