One question I got a lot while working as an actor in the theatre: “How do you learn your lines?”

Many actors dismiss the question as pedestrian or “surface.” I find it fascinating.

Sure, if you’ve just come off the stage after performing three hours of Hamlet, you may think, Don’t you have anything better to ask me?? I mean, I was just freaking Hamlet!!

Grumpy Danes aside, the question always piques my curiosity because, at its heart, it’s asking about the creative process.

Assuming that the question is probing beyond how do you train yourself to memorize words (spoiler alert – it’s just a practiced skill), the question seems to be asking how do you make the unfamiliar (the text) familiar (said like they’re your own thoughts).

So that’s a great question! But I want to take it a step further.

Making The Familiar Seem Spontaneous

Since the skill of memorizing isn’t actually that impressive – I mean, it’s like weightlifting, do it every day for a year, and quickly you’re the memorizing equivalent of Vin Diesel in a tank top – the real question is, once an actor has learned all of their lines, how are they unlearning them? How are they keeping the now familiar, unfamiliar?

The theatre excels at making something that has been repeated countless times appear spontaneous each night. Which is wild, because how the actors enter; how they move; how they speak their lines; how a light goes up and illuminates just the right object on the stage; how a music cue comes in and then fades out are all pre-decided and repeated.

So, how do these decisions seem fresh eight shows a week?

It’s simple, and a little counter-intuitive: a theatre production stays fresh, spontaneous, and exciting by having a rigorous and repeatable plan behind it.

In her book, A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre, American director Anne Bogart writes, “Art is violent. To be decisive is violent. Antonin Artaud defined cruelty as ‘unrelenting decisiveness, diligence, strictness.’ To place a chair at a particular angle on the stage destroys every other possible choice, every other option… But, deep down, the actor also knows that improvisation is not yet art. Only when something has been decided can the work really begin.”

Absolute freedom is absolute creative paralysis. Therefore, a framework needs to be in place to spark creativity.

The Creative Framework

In the first week of a production’s rehearsal, the actors go from sitting around a table, reading the play aloud to then getting the play “on its feet.”  The rehearsal hall floor is covered in coloured tape defining the actual stage’s dimensions, entrances, exits, etc. But at that point, no other staging decisions have likely been made. In fact, the rehearsal room is usually intimidatingly bare.

When actors step into the sparse playing space, questions abound: How much room do we have in this doorway? Does the door open upstage or downstage? Will there be a chair? Is that the kitchen? How close is the audience? And so on.

Over the years, I have learned that these questions are not a tactic to stall the process but rather it is actors trying to start the process. They need the creative plan to start being defined to find freedom and spontaneity within it.

This creative plan for actors and directors is the series of decisions made over weeks in the rehearsal hall.

So, how does this apply to organizations?

What Your Organization Can Learn From The Theatre

No organization wants its message to seem stale or recycled. But ‘taking a stab’ at a new campaign strategy out of the blue can risk inconsistency, confusing and alienating an audience rather than attracting it.

So, just like actors need a creative container to keep their choices consistent yet fresh, so too do organizations. And this container can be a brand narrative.

This brand narrative is the director, guiding from the backstage.

In its best form, your narrative is not a forward-facing piece of marketing that delivers bullet points of value propositions. Instead, it’s the story that encapsulates these unique facts while wrapping them in the spirit of the organization – its voice and humanity.

In other words, a well-done narrative breathes life into the communications. Planning and executing on your narrative keeps messaging fresh and creative and allows for spontaneity by tethering all choices to a consistent story.

That way, organizations can communicate to their audience repeatedly, like the seasoned actor, presenting the familiar as freshly unfamiliar.

So, how are you learning your lines?