Actors often ask how they can get better at memorizing. The short answer is, “Learn the right way to rehearse.” But, of course, there is a longer answer:
Memory and Association
Our brains are constantly creating understanding through association. If someone tells you, “John fell off the wagon,” your brain is able to create different meanings for that depending on whether you are at a bar or at a playground. This habit of association is especially true with memory. You can’t remember the hallway of your elementary school without also remembering how you felt when walked those halls as a kid.
So your approach to memorization should be about avoiding destructive associations and building good ones.
The negative associations:
Some actors can memorize by rote before beginning any rehearsals. And if you are very good at this, it can work. But when you memorize by looking at and then looking up from a piece of paper, you associate reading a page with saying those lines. How many times have you seen an actor go up on her lines and watched her eyes shift slightly down and to the left? She’s looking at the page in her head. How many times have you not known your line, but could say exactly where on the page you would find it? Rote memorization creates the danger of you going back to the page when you forget a line. And that is poison, because the page is not a part of the scene. Rote memorization only works if you are so good at it that you can quickly break those associations when rehearsals begin.
I prefer not to separate the memorization from the rest of the preparations, but rather to integrate it into the work by making the right associations:
1st Association: Taking a risk, out loud.
The very first time you read the lines, say them out loud. With your scene partner(s) if possible, or at least with a friend or helpful spouse. But even if you are reading alone, read out loud. As an actor, you will never be asked to silently read the lines to yourself, so why create that association? By reading out loud, you are building the right associations:
- You’re immediately looking at the scene not from the outside, but from the character’s perspective.
- You’re performing an action (talking out loud), not passively reading.
- You can feel the risk. You don’t know where the scene is going, and you are almost certain to make mistakes. Isn’t that great? You are at risk, and you know you can fail. All great actors are constantly finding ways of removing safety nets, so why miss this first opportunity? Read it out loud and see what the hell happens, and revel in the heady rush of brilliant discoveries and utter failures
Next assocaitions: Focusing on the other and changing tactics.
The worry many actors have is that memorizing while rehearsing will tend to lock in line readings and not leave them open to the moment. And this is an absolutely legitimate concern; do not associate specific interpretations with the memorization of the lines. If the scene takes an unexpected turn, you will have to go back to your original interpretation before being able to adjust. And you should never have to leave the scene, the moment.
But what I’ve advocated so far doesn’t lock in an interpretation. Your first read out loud will be filled with unclear and misguided choices, so your second reading will need to make adjustments. Your third, fourth, and subsequent readings should be equally experimental.
And from the start, associate saying the lines with interaction with an “other.” If you have a partner to work with, focus your energy on her or him. Reference the page only to get the words into your head, then look in her eyes as you speak and listen as she says her lines.
After you’ve read the scene a few times, put down the page and give it a try. You may only get two lines in before you go off script, but stay on task and finish the scene. Make some decision about what the character is fighting for, and fight for it. You will be improvising, but with the script in mind. And when you pick up the pages again, you’ll be in the mode of fighting to get what you want. And that’s a key association.
As you work, put down the pages every few reads and give it another go. Each time you will have more of the script and less improvisation, but it will be entering you head as a tool to get you what you want, not as an obligation on a page that most be honored. Lines are tools for you to perform your driving action; puzzle them out as such. If you always work with a sense of purpose, you won’t run the risk of getting locked into a line reading.Try the lines while trying to accomplish completely different objectives, ones that may not fit the scene at all. The idea is not to associate the words with specific tactics, but to associate them with the drive to get what you want.
Once you are mostly off book, you can run lines out loud, totally away from the scene. Say them as you make some eggs or sort through junk mail. Again, it’s about association, this time with the interaction with an “other.” Saying the words while accomplishing a task that's separate from the scene will ensure that you haven't locked them into a specific interpretation.
Never say the lines when you are not either a.) fighting for what you want or b.) interacting with some other. If, in the course of the scene, your line escapes you, you won’t go back to the page in your mind. You’ll stay in the moment of engagement and struggle, and it will come back to you from there, without you ever needing to leave the scene.
Interaction when working alone
There are times when you can’t begin your work with a partner. Your agent sent you the script and the audition is tomorrow. This is very tough to do without building negative association, so you must be disciplined.
Begin as you always should, reading out loud from the start (even the goofy commercial scripts that are less than Shakespearian in writing quality). As you re-read and begin to make choices, work with an other: anything you can look out to get you gaze and energy outward and focused away from yourself. In the absence of another human being, I’ve often borrowed my kids’ stuffed animals so I can at least make eye contact.
The key is to always imagine the rest of the scene fully and not get pulled back to the page simply because it’s real and the rest is imagined. I often use a voice recorder to playback the other lines, read flatly with plenty of silence for me to say my lines. But this is only for timing, to make sure I am taking the time to listen. I have to imagine the different ways the other lines may come at me. Just as I don’t want to associate with a single line reading for myself, I don’t want to associate with just one interpretation that I’m responding to. Again, working alone is far less than ideal, and it takes your disciplined use of your imagination to be sure you’re associating interaction with an other.
What if I’m told to improvise?
In the film world, there will be plenty of auditions where you need to be able to play around and go off the script. But memorizing the lines in the way I’ve described above doesn’t preclude your ability to improv; it improves it. Whether saying the prescribed words or not, you are engaging the other while fighting for what you want. If you’ve worked on the myriad ways that you can do that, the lines are not a crutch that you are leaning on, but one of many tools you have at the ready to accomplish your goal. Using to words of the writer will offer important clues to what you want and how you work to get it, as well as the overall style of the piece. You can and should practice improvising the scene, just don’t do it in lieu of knowing the words as written. Either way, the moment is the same: you fight for what you want with the tools available.
What was the short answer again?
From the moment you pick up the script, make the right associations, and you will hardly notice that you are memorizing.
Don’t know your lines. Know your purpose, and know well the tools you have to achieve that purpose. Then take risks and fight.
Stay honest, stay on task, and keep acting.