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The Green Room: When is the ideal time for an actor to go off-book?

Daryl McCormack, Aidan Turner and Julian Moore-Cook in rehearsals for Michael Grandage’s production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2018). The director is said to require actors to be off-book from day one. Photo: Marc Brenner Daryl McCormack, Aidan Turner and Julian Moore-Cook in rehearsals for Michael Grandage’s production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2018). The director is said to require actors to be off-book from day one. Photo: Marc Brenner

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​​

Ros Clifford, 30, is a deputy stage manager. She has worked extensively in London  and regional theatre  for nine years

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End

Charlotte Osmand is in her 30s and has worked as a stage manager on and off the book in venues across the UK, as well as in event management

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre


JonParticularly pleased that we have two highly experienced deputy stage managers in the room for this one.

Beryl Personally, I like to have rehearsed scenes a couple of times before coming off-book.

Peter When I was in three-weekly rep, an actress said she aimed to be off the book a week before opening.

Ros I’ve seen so many different processes over the years. Every show seems to be different. Every actor and director has different preferences.

Charlotte I agree. Everyone and every show is different. I have noticed that when all the company are off-book apart from one, it makes rehearsals a little difficult.

Adam I’ve pre-learned before and found it very freeing and not limiting like some people say.

Albert The older I get, the earlier I like the book out of my hand. You can’t act with a script. Get it out of the way.

Beryl I think you can’t pre-learn without making decisions, which can then throw you off track when in rehearsals. That discovery stage can be stilted by trying to unlearn thought processes that can become hard-wired.

Adam Pre-learning takes away the terror of “oh shit, I’m never going to learn this in time”.

Albert Directors should dictate when this happens. Early on in rehearsals they should say when they want books down, rather than: “Let’s be off-book tomorrow for this.” There is always a period of stumbling and blindness when the book goes down. It helps when you all do that together.

Ros In 11 years I’ve only known one director tell a company to be off-book for day one.

Charlotte I worked with one actor who was off-book on day one, realised that no one else was, so pretended to need to use his script for a couple of weeks.

Beryl If the director sets out the timetable, it’s much easier.

Peter Don’t pretend to be off-book when you’re not. Nothing more irritating than rehearsing with someone taking prompts every two lines.

Jon Charlotte and Ros, when do you start tactfully letting people know their baked-in mistakes? Because I think they can happen more if people are off-book from the start.

Charlotte It’s a tricky one as you have to get to know your cast very quickly.

Ros It is tricky and again, everyone responds to corrections differently.

Albert That’s why I think you need at least one work-through with books – whether people have come in off-book or not – so they can self-check.

Charlotte I usually let a mistake happen a couple of times, as people are often finding their way. But you do need to catch mistakes early as they can easily become embedded and then harder to change.

Ros If the mistake keeps happening, then I’ll quietly give the correction. But there are occasions when no matter how many times you give a correction, it just doesn’t sink in.

Albert I did a show where we had to be off-book from the start and the blocking rehearsals were just a memory test.

Adam New plays are different because of the endless rewrites. I tried to pre-learn a big new play once and the production script was unrecognisable from the one I had learned. It mangled my brain.

Beryl I hate that memory-test feeling in rehearsal, it’s a really uncreative time. As DSMs, it must be a challenge to negotiate.

Ros It can be.

Charlotte I think it’s a skill I have worked on over the years – knowing when to let an actor find their line, when they are pausing, or if they are waiting for you to give them the line.

Beryl Takes a good judge of character. I’m always glad when told about mistakes – it teaches you something fundamental about why you’re saying something wrong.

Jon I don’t know if it’s true, but I have heard that the DSMs on captioned performances at the National Theatre give the caption people all the actors’ habitual mistakes so the screen matches what is said on stage. I hope that’s true, it’s dead classy.

Ros It doesn’t just happen at the NT. I know lots of DSMs that do it.

Adam I love that.

Charlotte I do that too.

Peter I’ve been in shows where the leading actor arrives knowing it. And then everyone else feels the pressure to catch up.

Ros I’ve seen directors get frustrated in the past. I also know directors who give line corrections before a DSM can even open their mouth.

Charlotte That drives me mad.

Ros Like, give me a minute.

Jon I did a show without a director or stage manager earlier this year and lines were a really tricky thing. As a fellow actor, it’s really hard to find a way of saying: “Here are all the (famous) lines you’re getting wrong…”

Peter I worked with an actor who didn’t like the writing, and so deliberately ‘corrected’ it to what they thought it should be.

Beryl I’ve also been on stage with folk who never get their lines right. In a fast-paced play this can be a proper white-knuckle ride for everyone else. It’s exhausting and really stressful.

Charlotte I’ve also worked with actors who prompt as well. I’ve thought: “I’ll just make a cuppa and sit back.”

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

The Green Room: How do you learn your lines?

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