Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How to memorize scripts Pt 1

Announcing a new feature! Based on a reader’s question 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 over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing 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 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.


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.


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 if by'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!


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!

Stay tuned for more memorization methods. Hope you find this topic as fascinating as I do.


Anonymous said...

I do something of a combination of all 4, depending on the script.

One of the best monologues I ever used to practice memorization was Jabberwocky.

WV Ponsa: A ponsi scheme that ends up making money for the investors.

Delicious said...

In one of his memoirs, I think, Alec Guinness says he noticed that lines that seemed untrue to the character were hard to memorize.

John Trumbull said...

I do a lot of community theatre, so I've developed a few methods of memorizing lines.

First, I try to read the scene over as much as possible. Running the lines with a friend outside of rehearsal is very helpful, particularly if they can make recommendations on how to remember the dialogue. Recently, I've started typing my lines over into my computer & printing them out so I can read them by themselves. Basically, what ever forces me to repeat them a lot helps. Associating certain lines with certain bits of staging is always helpful.

I find it really hard to memorize lines if I can't find an internal logic to them. Non-sequiturs are always tough.

I also do improv, which eliminates a two of the aspects of acting I dislike: memorizing dialogue & costume changes!

Anonymous said...

I know every actor has a different process,but WOW!

I can not imagine taking approaches 1 or 2. Miles away from anyway I work.

3 and 4 make sense to me.

But all agree with my assertion back when the question was originally asked that, the better written the dialogue, the easier it is to learn.

Anonymous said...

hey Kenny...when were there Stage Managers on Cheers counting down...? (Actor 4) Video...? A tape to film sync episode...? couldn't have been very often, one would think. not being snarky, just curious.

Kralefski said...

"CSI is a nightmare." Hahahahahaha.
You can say that again.

Anonymous said...

I took a mnemonics course and can memorize every line relatively easily -- as long as the actor I'm playing against looks exactly like Jerry Lucas.

Mary Stella said...

The only acting I've done was in high school. Our drama teacher challenged us with theater of the absurd. I was in The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco. Non sequitur after non sequitur after non sequitur.

Thank God my memory was better back then.

wv=chiessa -- Where my inner energy is located

Unknown said...

It most certainly is fascinating.

Just yesterday I talked to a co-worker about how her son is currently learning to write, spell etc. - they now have TWO foreign languages in first grade! I got my first in fith grade and the second in seventh.

I myself am also a visual learner - I read stuff and memorize how they looked on the page - but the other example was good too - where on stage do you stand when you have to say line X?

It's the same with math for me - where on the page was the formula for this given problem (you can do that up until university, all tests you get basically ask you to use a set of given formulas, you just have to write them down once to have them). I always remembered how a formula looked in the book - and where it was on the page. Same goes to peoms. I still remember a poem from 4th grade. Not the words - but how the paragraphs looked on paper, what the paper smelled like and the typeface. I know it sounds silly :-)

When it came to learning english, I watched lots and lots of TV. You learn when and where a word is right. You learn how it is spoken - and when you got a DVD-Player and you turn on the subtitles, you also learn how these words are written.

So if I had to go up on stage today I guess, based on these examples you gave, I'd take my script and learn on stage, or at least try to visualize what will happen, who I will talk to and how I'd do it. Not just learn the words but already think about how I would deliver them, so it all feels natural.

The line-numbering compared to that really is the method from hell.

Anonymous said...

I am both scared and impressed by 2. Yikes!

Anonymous said...

In my theatrical days what I did was record myself saying the lines (this is back in the day of cheapo cassette recorders) and then just playing it back ceaselessly.

(I discovered this after viewing Animal House twelvety squajillion times and realizing I have memorized every character's every line.)


Howard Hoffman said...

If anyone knows SNL's Bobby Moynahan, please send him the link to this post. I'm beggin' ya.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting that the common thread was "good writing is easier to memorize than bad writing."

VW Applar: A popular Klingon fruit.

The Minstrel Boy said...

after the scene is blocked i go to a ball diamond with my script. then i walk slowly from home to first, and around the bases.

i don't do any memorization until the blocking is there.

Anonymous said...

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? just wasn't the same with the 3x5 index cards.

Cap'n Bob said...

As a college and community theatre thespian I found repetition the best tool. By opening night I knew not only my lines but the lines of every other character. Now I can't remember where I park my car.

WV: dalies. hey, no fair, it's a real word.

Emily Blake said...

I have an actor friend who's dyslexic, so he tries to get projects where improv is encouraged. I think he memorizes lines by reading the script over and over like a robot. I once asked him what he does if he has to read a script someone hands him on the spot, and he said he just concentrates really hard and hopes he doesn't screw it up.

Anonymous said...

I always found Robert Downey Jr's explanation interesting on Inside the Actor's studio.

He rewrites the dialogue. Then he writes it out using the first letter of each word only. He goes over it until the first letter is the only prompt he needs.

Anonymous said...

The late Nick Colasanto, who played Coach on Cheers, was a great guy, but not exactly rock-solid when it came to memorizing lines. He tried to overcome that deficiency by scribbling his lines on the back of the set, so that the moment before he made an entrance, he could take a quick glance at his next line and have it fresh in his mind. I believe Ken will agree that Nick's system was not 100% failsafe.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom Reeder,

I think that Coach started to have problems remembering his lines when he became sick. I remember Ted Danson saying something about that on the DVD of, I think, season 3.

Anonymous said...

John Trumbull: Ditto. I do a lot of community theater as well and find that typing my lines out by themselves really helps me.

Then its just repetition. I like to get off book as soon as possible as I find characterization doesn't really come for me until I don't have that damn script in my hand!

One thing I'm sure of is that there's a million different ways to learn your lines and every actor has a slightly different method.

Anonymous said...

I did THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST once with an actor who wrote out his lines all over the set, secretly, the night before the first off-book rehearsal. We began to notice something odd about what was happening; the way he was staring intently at furniture instead of at us. The way he would put in a cross that wasn't in his blocking to get to a line he'd written in the wrong location. There was a circular divan in the center of the set, and he'd written his lines around it rather than across it, so he had to move around it during that speech.

When it became obvious what he was doing, and he began racing more frantically from location to location, the whole cast and the director fell apart laughing. And this guy had appeared on Broadway in a production that won the Pulitzer Prize!

And Wilde's EARNEST is so magnificently written, a masterpiece, that it is simple to memorize. That was over 30 years ago, and I can still recite whole scenes, even ones I was not in.

Another actor I know had to replace an actor in THE BOYS IN THE BAND with only 7 hours notice. (The actor playing Emory had been in a car accident.) With barely any time to learn the play, he had lines scribbled about the set, and he taped the page with his big monologue onto the coffee table.

But he forgot he would be playing it without his glasses, which were thick, and left him almost blind without them.

Since he was supposed to be very drunk for the big monologue, he ad-libbed a fall off the sofa, and lay with his head ON the coffee table, so he was rubbing his face on his script page to read it from an inch away, since farther away than that, he couldn't possibly read it. it must have been a very eccentric performance. I was, at the time, in rehearsals for a play he was directing. He had his assistant director call a rehearsal for that night to prevent ANY of us from seeing his debut performance, floundering in that play, as we were all DYING to see him struggle through it. His wife was in the play I was in, and even she was FORBIDDEN from attending the performance.

There was a lot of "Oh Emory, doesn't that make you feel like saying ...?" from the other cast members that night. And actors discreetly pointing in various directions to indicate to him where he needed to go. Stage hands waited for him off-stage at each of his exits, to catch him and lead him about in the dark.

Ah, live theater.

Write Away said...

Actor Number 4 hit it right on the "mark" for me. When I fancied myself an actor, from junior high through regional theater, I never memorized my lines as homework. I always learned my lines during rehearsal and the blocking stage. On the day when we were supposed to be "off book" the lines just came as if they were written on the blocking marks on the floor... Anyway, the "How to memorize scripts" is a wonderful addition to your already amazing blog. Can't wait to read more!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it's true what I heard. Instead of memorizing lines, Marlon Brando would write them on his hands. That's why he had a loss for words in that scene in "On the Waterfront" where he put on Eva Marie Saint's glove. But as he got fatter, he could freely recite entire plays except for the parts obscured by barbecue sauce.

Anonymous said...

It's true that late in his career Marlon refused to memorize dialogue, and relied on idiot cards. He certainly did on SUPERMAN, but then, they were only paying $2,000,000 for his seven minutes of film. He became known for it in his later films, but not at the time of ON THE WATERFRONT.

He CLAIMED it was for "spontaneity". Yeah, pull the other one, Marlon. Laziness and his widely reported contempt for acting in his old age is more likely the reason.

Anonymous said...

Didn't I hear that Brando's character in The Formula had a prop hearing aid so that someone could feed him lines through it?

Caitlin said...
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Caitlin said...
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Anonymous said...

When I was reading this, I was reminded about I Love Lucy. When the cast would get the scripts each week, Bill Frawley would tear his pages out of the script, and throw everything else away. Sometimes he didn't even know the basic storyline of the episode, he just knew his lines.

Anonymous said...

What Bill Frawley did was exactly what Shakespeare's actors did -- they learned their own lines and their cues, and that was it -- it was much too expensive to hand-copy the entire play for each actor. This was the dominant way of learning lines up until the 19th century, and some actors continued to work this way until well into the 20th century.

David McCormick said...

@Lyn is exactly right about Shakespeare's actors. If you memorize your lines and cues only, you engage more active listening in the rest of the scene.

Moreover, most people in Shakespeare's time were illiterate, so many actors learned their lines and cues by ear. has an excellent product to learn sides by hearing them.

Anonymous said...

Simply get a recorder, record everyone's lines but yours and for the first few times read along with the script until you can take it away. Then you can play it in the car, on the bus, walking, running - wherever and you can do lines till they're in your blood. Also great way to hear cues and really listen to other actors.

Charlie Hip said...

I always end up being able to memorize the lines of all the other characters in the play as well as my own by being fully engage during rehearsal.

Also, lines are much easier to remember if there is blocking to go with them, and far easier to recall if you've learned them while moving around - So get onto your feet while doing a scene study!!

I also marry the text to mental images so that transitioning from one thought to the other becomes seamless, and it helps to move the delivering lines away from route repetition of text to the true speech of the thinking human being.

Anonymous said...

I think that if you remember yourself how lucky you are to have this job that only requires to learn some lines instead of going for an year in irak and kill people for reasons that you don't really know, it should become so easy..all this process.. The rest is just inventing misery, and problems that are not there..Sorry for all the spoiled actors around. But yeah, without them, I won't be able to get an acting job myself :)

Anonymous said...

Wow that was so bad I pretty much forgot my name....... but good try

Anonymous said...

Ok.......... that just confused me........