Saturday, October 08, 2016

How to memorize scripts

I'm forever amazed at how actors can memorize entire plays and TV scripts.  I've been reminded of that recently watching my cast of GOING GOING GONE memorize a 90 minute show.  (Half-price tickets are still available for Sunday.   I take any opportunity to plug it.  Just go here.)   But it prompted me to re-post a two-part series I did almost four years ago on memorization    I surveyed a number of very successful actors and actresses to learn how they memorize scripts. Their answers were all fascinating and wildly different. There were too many to squeeze into one post so tomorrow I’ll share the rest. I’m sure a few of you have methods of your own. My thanks to these actors for their generous participation. Memorization is just one of the many skills I don't have to be an actor.

Actor 1


Read the scene a few times. Try not to read it out loud a lot. Then get a pad and scribble your dialogue as quickly as possible without worrying about being able to read it back later...no punctuation. Write as fast as your brain goes. Keep doing that until the lines come fast.

Then have someone read the scene with you a few times, or do it yourself covering the dialogue with something until you get to it.

If they're good lines it'll go quickly. If they're crap lines, do the same thing but curse a lot while you're doing it.

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Actor 2

I have a lousy memory. And it isn't - for me at least, though I expect this may be generally true - something that gets easier with time, since, with time, one's memory declines.

I HATE memorizing.

Then, there are 2 categories of memorizing: 1) Theater - must be word perfect. Them's the rules, since the script is "rented" from the owner, not purchased. 2) tv/film: depending on who the producers are, who the director is, how much clout the writer has (lots if he's a producer - as you know), one may be able to get away with a bit of paraphrasing...or "improving". More in drama than comedy, I think.

Here's how I memorize, and it's totally obsessive/compulsive.

I number all my lines. If there is more than one scene, and the scenes do not immediately follow each other, than I treat each scene separately. After numbering, I go through the scene, making sure I can do each line by memory. Then I make sure I can do each pair of lines by memory. 1&2. 3&4. 5&6, etc. Then I do 2&3, 4&5, 6&7, through to the end. Then by 3's. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, etc. Then 2-4, 5-7, 8-10, etc. Then 3-5.... Then by 4's, 5's, 6's, until I'm doing the entire scene's lines from memory. If there are lengthy speeches, I also treat them as separate entities with this method. This is a method of my own devising, and probably a rotten way to go about it. Some people simply look at dialogue and remember it. Some people should not ever step in front of my car.

And that's how I do it. If working creatively is heaven, then my process is hell.

Oh, and one also has to memorize cues...or just wait until there's a lengthy silence and then begin speaking. Cues, sometimes, are actually more difficult, unless they actually "cue" the next speech.

Friendly cue: What time is it?
Unfriendly cue: I'm feeling kind of...mushy.

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Actor 3

Hmmmm.... Good question. It just comes from a combo of looking it over and the repetition of saying the lines. I think I'm a visual learner because if I can visualize the type and where it was on the page, the words come. It's probably second nature at this point. It's also really great for me to have at least one night of looking at it just before bed. Then, somehow, the next day ...as if by magic....it's there. ( I go into a terrible panic when handed pages on the set!)

Overall, I would say that the more often someone practices the skill the better they become at it. I'd advise a new actor to work on various monologues regularly .....just to become easy with the skill (I'd recommend Shakespeare.)

I do have to say that good writing is easier to memorize. Bad writing can be a real struggle. CSI is a nightmare!

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Actor 4


The truth is that the only time I actively memorize is when the lines are awkward or poorly written. Then it is sometimes necessary to go over the words again and again until you find a way to make them 'fall trippingly off the tongue'.

When doing a play, where everything must be learned at once, I usually find that by the time I have studied my way through the script several times I have already picked most of them up. The thing that seals it is the blocking process; suddenly you just know that when you cross down stage left and pick up that glass you say "X".

The same is true when you are shooting movies and long form TV. You just do it scene by scene, and working with the other actors makes it all come alive and be much easier.

Now sitcoms - that can be a real challenge since those darn writers just keep fussing and adjusting up until the moment they are thrown off of the sound stage by the janitor after the final taping. I made the mistake of telling the Charles Brothers that I was a very quick study. It got to be a sort of game with them to give me brand new lengthy orations just as the stage manager was counting down. Certainly kept me on my toes!

Tomorrow the rest. Hope you find this topic as fascinating as I do.

8 comments:

Stephen Marks said...


Actor 5

I don't even bother memorizing my lines, screw them. When I played Don Vito Corleone I had my lines written on lamp shades, in desk drawers, on James Caan's forehead, anywhere I could pay the script girl to write them. That whole "know your lines and try not to bump into the furniture" acting method of Tracey's is for amateurs. When I played Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now I just had that idiot Coppola film whatever inane gibberish came out of my mouth after I made sure my cheque cleared. When I kept repeating my now famous "the horror" line I was simply referencing the taste I remembered after sampling one of Coppola's shit vintage wines. I'm now considered a genius and own an island.

Jeff Weimer said...

Actor 4 - Bebe Neuwirth?

Johnny Walker said...

"It got to be a sort of game with them to give me brand new lengthy orations just as the stage manager was counting down."

Oh man! There's only a few people this could be. My guess is Marilu Henner!

Rashad Khan said...

"C.S.I. is a nightmare."

For the viewers AND for the actors.

Eric J said...

I worked with a lot of actors prepping to become rich and famous by doing training videos. They used techniques exactly the opposite of memorization. I would hand them a script (5-15 minutes), they would go off in a corner to mark it up for themselves. Then they recorded it on a small tape recorder with an earpiece and a pause button they threaded through their sleeve. An hour or less after they first saw the script, we'd start shooting. They listened to themselves on the recorder, and spoke the words milliseconds later while performing some mechanical task and looking human. If the tape got ahead of them, they paused it until they caught up, then started again with almost no effect on their delivery. It was amazing. If I questioned them about the script afterwards, they had almost no memory of having said something.


Andy Rose said...

This is very interesting. I'm comfortable with public speaking because I can just hash out the main points I want to make, rehearse my flow from one point to the next, and ad-lib everything else. But I'm terrible at rote memorization, and I've always admired people who are good at it.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Catching up on some reading, I found this touching NY Times story about Vin Scully and his wife on his retirement.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/sports/baseball/vin-scully-wife-marriage-dodgers.html?ref=sports

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I'm with Andy. I can speak off the cuff but those that remember things, and recite them especially in a sequence, are amazing.
use a different portion of the brain, i guess.

Actually, people who can remember songs with a fast paced lyric (think HAMILTON the musical), that is a skill i don't have.