Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How to memorize scripts Pt 2

Here’s another installment in how actors memorize scripts. 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.

More next week. I hope it’s not just me, but I find this stuff fascinating.


Anonymous said...

Sort of OT, but I could use some reassurance. It’s 9pm. here and we just finished watching tonight’s portion of Make ‘em Laugh, that analysis of the history of comedy thingy on PBS, and it scared me. The underlying message seems to be that if you’re not a performer yourself, but a producer, writer of “cultural historian,” if you live, then you still have to end up grizzled, overly tan, often needing a haircut, and way, way too leathery --- and I’m not just talking Joan Rivers. Or is that just a west coast deal?

Memorization techniques can be somewhat risky. Like one is visual associations. For example, say I’m trying to remember your name is John McCain. Well I might visualize the guy stirring a gallon of gazpacho in a toilet with a giant candy cane. Then you meet him, get it slightly off, and introduce the guy as Stu Toilet. Wouldn’t bring this up, if it hadn’t happened…twice.

Dave said...

I missed the first hour of tonight's comedy show. Did they deal with Ernie Kovacs at all?

As far as memorization goes, in my acting days, I was fond of method #2, but in the years since, I've found memorizing lines to be like pulling teeth. It really started when I did Mamet's "Oleanna," which is nothing but starts, stops, interruptions, and ellipses. It was torture, but I eventually got 95% of the lines.

Anonymous said...

Ok, the letter thing... that's just wacky for me and I've never heard of it before. Any chance I could talk you into getting the actors to expound on that ken?

Anonymous said...

I have no idea why I find this stuff so interesting. But I do.

Anonymous said...

I thought to add this excerpt with Marlo Thomas and Lily Tomlin, from ( ) a recent interview:

Lily Tomlin: I’m always amazed at people. After you do something on the stage and people will say, “God, how do you remember the words?” And you think, “Surely that’s not what they’re coming away with — the fact that I knew the lines.”

Marlo Thomas: I don’t know why it isn’t hard, but because you rehearse. Lily does so many characters and she doesn’t even have many places to move around on the stage. But when you’re in a play, the lines are connected to the physical movements. So that when I get up from the couch — I mean you’d have to shoot me in the head not to get me to say the line when I stood up.

Lily: Muscle memory, of course. If you’ve done a project – done a play or a piece like that, and you come back to it five years later, you’ll … the muscle memory will be so strong.

Marlo: It’s right there.

Question: But you don’t do it at home, do you? You don’t get up off the couch and say that line?

Marlo: No, no, no, no, no. But it’s funny. It really is true. We did “Roger is Dead” in San Francisco several months ago and now we’ve done it in New Jersey, and are hoping to bring it to New York. When we did it in San Francisco, she did some rewrites. And Elaine (May) added new lines in the middle of these scenes that we’d already rehearsed four weeks and played four weeks. And those were the hard lines to remember because your body had moved to a whole other rhythm. And now you were throwing in – just little things. I’d put the tea over there. And it was like, God, you couldn’t even remember that one little line, because your body did remember another way. And that was actually harder than learning the whole play. It’s interesting.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am finding all these various ways of memorizing lines fascinating... particularly the common observation that it's way easier when the lines are good. Does that make you think back, Ken, and wonder how easy it was for actors to memorize your scripts? :) (I imagine it wasn't particularly difficult.)

Two questions: I'd like to know whom you asked, but I get that you're protecting their anonymity. I wondered, though, if you would mind printing a list of whom you emailed (rather than a list of who answered). That way we'd sort of get an idea. (I completely understand if you'd rather not, though; just thought I'd put it out there.)

2nd question: Now that reruns of both M*A*S*H and Frasier are available Mon-Fri in my neck of the woods, I can really see now how similar Frasier Crane was to Charles Winchester. (Charles is my favorite M*A*S*H character.) And when I watch the episode where David Ogden Stiers plays Mrs. Crane's old lab partner, I wonder if the storyline meant to acknowledge Charles Winchester as Frasier's "spiritual father", in a sense. Was Frasier a deliberate homage to that earlier character?

Anonymous said...

OK, double dipping here, but is this experience common to anyone else? I'm no actor, but I find that when I've written something, a comedy bit, a speech, a song parody, etc., the most helpful thing in both memorization and making the needed changes is getting up and doing it in from of PEOPLE -- an audience of some kind?

Maybe this is something akin to this muscle memory,but in any case,I don't mean audience feedback, like breaking in new material and seeing whether anybody else finds it funny.

Maybe it's the adrenaline that gets going that charges the moment equivalent to adding a more powerful emotional affect? Maybe it’s the confidence that allows you to know you can memorize it? Maybe it’s knowing that you’ve gotten through it and LIVED? Or maybe the reward from getting a positive response, rather than just the validation that the writing and delivery choices you’ve made were valid? Maybe doing it with people – instead of just the voices in your head – gives it more associations, and connects with other sections of your brain involved in the memorizing? (I just found out our daughter is starting a residency in neurology. All this time I thought it was numerology. Now I’ll feel more comfortable asking her.)

This seems to be the case even if the first time it’s off of index cards. I realize this is sort of restating what others have volunteered, but one prep I do is use index cards to rehearse. Then very quickly shorten the card cues more and more, first to maybe a word in each key phrase, then just to the first word of the sentence, then to the first word of what might be the equivalent of a paragraph, then to the first letter. (And then always carry at least that one index card with the first letter of everything in a pocket, well, just in case…… Why that’s IT! The secret to and Oscar-worthy performance. Pockets.

Finally, as far as some of those ... er .... Line?

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know how James Spader got through those incredibly long closings in Boston Legal. Maybe he has the same gift Spencer Tracy had. He went on for pages at the end of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Courtney Suzanne said...

My style of memorization was always similar to #3's approach. I'd think about what the character would naturally say in response to the last line, and it helped a lot. Of course, if the character isn't very well-written, that would be a lot harder.

Also, sometimes it was like learning a song for me. I'd memorize the rhythm of the lines. I always found learning songs for musicals much easier than learning lines of dialogue. I can't remember any lines from any show I ever did, but I can practically sing every song in them.

Kirk said...

If you can't tell us the names of the actors, at least tell us who drew the cartoon. I can't make out the signature.

dogis: singular form of "dogs are"

Anonymous said...


That's DEFINITELY a West Coast thing.


Anonymous said...

P.S. My WVW is "mospurp" which is what you say when you loved the spurp and you'd like some second helpings.

Chris Riesbeck said...

The cartoonist is Sidney Harris, famous for the "then a miracle occurs" cartoon.

VW: mizemin as in "Is yours big? No mizemin."

Anonymous said...

I'll guess:

Actor 1: Jackie Swanson
Actor 2: Gary Coleman
Actor 3: Dame Judi Dench

Kirk said...

Thanks Chris.

Guys like that should be better known.

Anonymous said...

Dear jbryant~

I am not Actor 1.