Monday, April 6, 2009

It's hard to forget what you never memorized in the first place.

In yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times there was a short Associated Press interview with John Mahoney, who played Kelsey Grammer's dad on Frasier for 11 seasons. But before that he was already known as a terrific stage and film actor, having started his acting career at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in the late '70s, when he was in his late 30s.

I thought I'd read long ago that he was selling insurance before he started doing plays, but according to the All Movie Guide, "Mahoney worked at different careers including college professor and medical journal editor in Chicago. Though he had appeared on-stage in his teens, Mahoney did not again become interested in acting until he was 37 and decided to enroll in classes at the St. Nicholas Theater, a Chicago institution co-founded by playwright/screenwriter David Mamet. After performing in one of Mamet's plays, Mahoney quit his latest job. Later, at the invitation of distinguished actor and classmate John Malkovich, Mahoney joined Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, where he appeared in about 30 productions."

I also didn't know until I read the AP interview that Mahoney was born in England. Again, according to the All Movie Guide, he "emigrated to the U.S. at age 19 in the 1950s and joined the Army. One of the first things he worked on was losing his British accent, something he succeeded at doing. Once out of the service, Mahoney earned a B.A. from Quincy College and then graduated from Western Illinois University with a master's in English." His most high-profile role outside of Frasier, at least as far as my generation is concerned, is in Cameron Crowe's directorial debut, Say Anything... (1989), where he plays Ione Skye's adoring but misguided father.

There was a quote in the AP interview, which was tied to Mahoney's role in the new season of HBO's In Treatment, that I agree with 100 percent: "You have to be respectful of your script, and I try not to change a word. I just like to learn the lines and then see what happens with the other actors. I listen to what's being said, and then respond to how it's said. I like to surprise myself." I want to find Mr. Mahoney in nearby Oak Park and ask him if he'll shout that quote at improvisers who often treat sketch comedy as an opportunity to expand improv comedy, also known as "the laziest art form," into the area of scripted material.

Many actors have cold-sweat anxiety dreams about getting onstage and not knowing a single line of dialogue, and when you do forget a line and "go up," three seconds of silence can feel like three minutes. Improvisers, generally speaking, don't have that anxiety since every line of dialogue springs from their own minds, but you can become speechless onstage nonetheless.

With scripted material, you have to memorize your lines and repeat them over and over until they're second nature and you've forgotten them, in a sense, so that all you're doing once you get onstage is listening and reacting to the other actors. Improvising with scripted material can work if each actor knows where the script begins and ends and is comfortable expanding on it or doing away with it entirely—with the blessing of the director and writer, of course—but I've never experienced that level of trust in a sketch show. (For many improvisers the "brass ring" is Saturday Night Live, the long-running TV sketch show that involves no improvising whatsoever. Go figure.)

Of course, if the script is constantly changing (if you're also the writer of a sketch that's a work in progress until opening night of your show, then you're changing it yourself), having enough time to memorize and forget can be difficult. But what's more difficult is when the actors change the lines themselves each time they perform a scene or sketch because they never memorized the lines correctly in the first place. Sometimes I've read scenes with improviser-actors for the first time and been stunned to see that they're changing every other word in the script as they read. Do we have different scripts? Or is it arrogance? Or ignorance? Or arrogantly ignored dyslexia that needs to be retroactively diagnosed and immediately treated?

The world may be a stage, but since people who can't read tend to get left behind in the modern world, the theatre world shouldn't be forgiving of actors and improvisers who've decided to leave behind one of the most important things they learned in kindergarten. (This is a rant. I know. And I realize I could've tried to be more forgiving. But I believe I have a legitimate complaint, Your Honor.)

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