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Ginny Davis on Learning Lines

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Question: Who said “I always know my lines”? A: Vivien Leigh.

Brighton is filling with actors and actresses who have polished their props, learned their lines and are costumed – all ready to entertain the crowds of locals and tourists flocking to Brighton Festival Fringe performances.

Every actor has his or her own way of learning lines. Some pace up and down script in one hand, forehead in the other, repeating the magic words until suddenly they stick. Others do it through their fingertips, typing words repeatedly. Those blessed with a photographic memory take a snapshot glance at a speech and learn the words by reference to where they sit on a page.

Sooner or later they all reach the moment when they believe they have the lines nailed and they just need someone to test them. This tends not to be a one-off occasion. Friends and family dread the “Can you just hear my lines?” question when they have heard them many times already and know that the first night is still a fortnight away.

Pity the solo performer. The average 60-minute show contains seven thousand words – each of which must be learned and delivered in the right order, at the right time by him or her alone. I currently perform three one-woman plays. This month I perform a fourth, the world première of Ten Questions (co-written with Ana-Maria Bamberger), giving a total of 28,000 words to store in what I laughingly call my memory. It would be fine if I could also remember where I have left my keys.

I find the best time to rehearse lines is walking my dogs. I wander through woods and meadows mouthing inaudibly to myself. Other walkers give me a wide berth, which helps me concentrate but is not good for making friends. I started learning Ten Questions over Christmas.

One day I was queuing for return tickets to see Matilda at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I decided to go over my lines. The box office assistant (I will call her Jean) was looking bored so I asked if she was busy. “Not really.” And she agreed to listen to the play. The lines flowed thick and fast and I arrived at the scene where my character has an ill-tempered telephone conversation with her mother.

A party of tourists came in, hoping for tickets. I continued to rant at my imaginary mum. Jean told them to wait or come back later. With a nervous glance in my direction they took the second option. I moved on to the saddest scene in the play. Tears pricked my eyes as it unfolded. I noticed Jean standing up. Was the scene too much to bear? She asked me to stop. I did and asked her if she was okay. “Oh yes, but I have to go now. It’s the end of my shift. My husband will be waiting with the car.”

Ginny Davis will be performing Ten Questions at The Marlborough Theatre, Princes Street, Brighton between 12 and 15 May.


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