Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to memorize scripts -- Part 2

Here’ the final  installment in how actors memorize scripts.  Part 1 was yesterday.  These come from actors you know. As you’ll see, no two methods are even remotely similar.

Actor 1:

The repetition from rehearsals is very helpful. But, of course, on "Cheers" we had lots of changes. That's why starting in the middle of the week was so constructive.

I could study during the weekend. I would mark the common consonants, like the "t"s or the "s"s or whatever. Sometimes the letters were near alphabetical, but even if they weren't the consonants gave me a landmark in my long paragraphs.


Actor 2:

When memorizing lines, I make it a rule to lay off xanax or klonopin.

Most shows aren't that good, so it's difficult to stay awake anyway. Usually, I read the whole script first so I understand the story. Then, I sit in a chair in the corner of my bedroom and literally memorize page by page, reading each line and the cues, and then by putting my hand over my lines (i.e. covering up my lines) and trying to say them. It helps me to say them out loud.

I stay with each page until I can do the whole page and then move on. In a long play, I aim at only five pages a day. For plays, I also like to know my lines as soon as possible, even before we start, even though a lot of directors don't approve of that (because, they believe, you get locked in to line readings. I disagree- particularly in a really wordy play. I think if you know the lines really well you can say them in any way that occurs to you during rehearsal.

I also like to go over my lines in my head wandering around the street - if I can do them with all the distractions of the city - then I really know them, even though you look pretty stupid to all the people passing you by .

It has to be a little faster for film and tv - although I do the same things. It helps me to imagine the blocking, even if what I imagine doesn't always turn out to be correct.

Honestly, I'm not particularly good at memorizing. I know people who are dazzlingly fast - they can read down a page and they've pretty much got it. They almost never sit in a corner somewhere and work on it... just by rehearsing and osmosis they get it. Alec Baldwin's ability to memorize fast is astounding. Somehow, they see the page in their head.

A bunch of people hire assistants to constantly grill the lines - I don't usually do that but it's really common.


Actor 3:

Hi Ken,

It is fairly easy for me to memorize lines at this point.

Normally, there is an objective to whatever I am saying in a scene (ie: I know what I want to say) so the lines are obvious to learn.

Sometimes it is harder when there is a long speech. That is harder to learn - I have to make sense of it for me then just say it over and over until I know it in my sleep.

I have little clues for memorizing too: if I have to remember a list of things in a speech I remember the first letter of each word.

The hardest lines to remember are those in another language.


Actor 4 (a soap opera star):

A great deal of it depends on certain skills that you're either born with or you're not. If you are born with the capacity to memorize, so much the better for you. However other factors do come into play. One of those is your comfort and familiarity with the character you're portraying. If it's new and you're just kinda feeling your way along, might be slightly difficult at first. However, if it's a character with which/whom you are completely familiar and at ease then you know, almost before the writer puts it on the page, what you'll say and how you'll say it. Another factor is the leeway, if any, that an actor is given with his/her lines. On a soap, for instance, with sometimes PAGES of dialogue or (heaven help us) a monologue, you (more often than not) will be given a little room to ad-lib. Get all the correct information out, give your partner their correct cue and make it sound natural and real...and you can get away with a lot.

Stage trained actors usually fare much better on the screen than the other way around with regard to memorization. There's very little ad-libbing tolerated in the theatre and so that training is invaluable when making the leap to TV or film. However, the advantage of doing live theatre is the rehearsal process, which can take weeks of doing the same scene over and over...and THAT'S where much of the memorizing is done for the stage. For the screen, big or little, if you are just not a good memorizer, the only thing you can do is go over and over and over and over...and over it with a partner or in the mirror. Sentence by sentence if you have to.

Actor 5:

Years ago I was taught a method called the "key word" method for memorizing commercial copy quickly when auditioning for commercials in NY where the copy is presented to you when you get to the audition. You only have a few minutes to look at it before you're whisked in to go on camera. The "key word" is the word that jumps out at you when you are reading a line and is different for everyone, but hopefully is the "heart" of a sentence. You circle it and memorize it. Then in theory you have a list of "key words" that bring up the complete sentence when needed.

Now, my actress wife has also influenced me and her method is one that I have used more and more the older I get. Seeing a picture in my mind of the sentence and matching an action to it at the same time.

An actor also has an action for each line. Actions being verbs. For example, in typical arguments between two romantic leads in a scene, often one character will get to a point where they "present", "list", "defend" (all active verbs) their P.O.V. with a "laundry list" of idea. In the actor's mind when you get to that place in the scene in my mind I know what is to be said is the "laundry list", and I match that to my action/verb "defend my P.O.V.", "present my reasoning", "list my reasoning", etc.

The process typically gets harder the older you get because for most of us our memory begins to go, but with these tools and techniques, hopefully we can stay adept at memorizing for more years than we should. They are good brain exercises too. All memorization ... jokes, poetry, speeches, etc. are good for our brains.

Actor 6:

I'm what is called a "quick study" -- I can learn pages in a few minutes. Apparently, that has to do with what side of the brain you work on -- and that's not a choice!

I learn through images. I see a line and I see the picture of the line. For example, "I love you, you're the greatest man I've ever known, but if you don't clean up that office, I"m going to leave you!"

I see the man I love standing in a room full of paper which he is not putting in a trash can and then I see myself leaving.

The picture -- to the action -- to the line.

Sometimes, there is a word I get caught on and then I use a muscle memory technique. The brain is a muscle and if you lift 20-30 times all the other
muscles (the tongue etc.) remember. So, I repeat by rote over and over and over until the muscle remembers and then I don't have to think about that word -- it comes -- the muscle just
does it.

Finally, my acting technique, Meisner, learned in grad school -- lines are just an extension of the physical action. So when you are working out the part you are in motion moving from
set piece to prop to person etc. and it's like a dancer with choreography you just know what the action is your playing and you move in that direction and the lines come because you know where you are headed based on the intention and action of the scene.

Thanks again to all the actors who participated.  


Mitchell Hundred said...

I'm not a professional actor, but in highschool my drama teacher gave us a method that was pretty useful. Basically it was to transcribe any scenes we were in onto flashcards. The mere act of writing things down helped them to stay in my head easier, and whenever I had a spare moment (waiting for the bus, in line at the store, etc.), I'd go over them again and again. If you break things down into bite-sized chunks they become much easier to handle.

The problems with this method are that you have to copy down a pretty significant part of each scene (even the bits you aren't in, because you don't want to miss your cues), and it might not work if you have to memorize things quickly like on a TV show or commercial. But for a medium like theatre it's pretty effective.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a professional actress either, but Mitchell's is the method I use to memorize stuff for university exams - I copy/sometimes transcribe the professor's ppts onto flashcards, and after that first step usually already remember most of the important facts. Repeated reading on the bus will help to learn the less important tidbits.

Michael said...

Friday question:

When casting pilots, do show runners consider an actor's reputation in terms of being able to be a quick study and/or causing problems on the set? Is this information widely shared among show runners?

Carol said...

Thank you, Ken. This was very interesting.

It does bring up a question for me, however.

I tend to memorise my lines just because we do them over and over in rehearsal, and generally for the community theatre groups I've been involved in, we have around 6 weeks or more of rehearsal.

How long does a television actor get to memorise their lines? It doesn't seem to me that they have a large amount of time for rehearsal or memorisation!

Eric J said...

I'm not in the entertainment industry as such, but your blog educates me in so many other ways.

" The brain is a muscle..."


Eitan Loewenstein said...

Actor #7

People hate me but I generally can memorize very quickly. If it's theater I'm usually off book by the second week of rehearsal (maybe because my parts aren't usually that big). For TV/Film where there's no rehearsal I just read the lines, with no acting, to my wall. I do this a couple times. Sometimes I do them with my dog. If I'm really in some sort of panic I have my wife help me.

It's basically a brute force method. It's probably aided by the fact that I have a half decent memory.

The key is to not learn them with any sort of "acting" or infection. If you get bored then do them in lots of different funny accents. My dog loves my Scottish accent.

Wayne said...

Just curious. On Cheers, how did Marilu Henner memorize?

Mitchell McLean said...

Do you mean "On Taxi?"

emily said...

If she showed up on Cheers, she memorized the wrong studio address...

Johnny Walker said...

Lol. Perhaps Wayne could share his technique for memorizing which shows different actresses have been in :)

(I kid, I kid!)