Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to memorize scripts

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


typ said...

Yes, I find it very fascinating. I've always wondered how they do it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Interesting. In one of the BIG BANG DVD features, Jim Parsons has said he practices his lines at home while doing the movements he expects to use while saying them because the physical movements help cue the lines. (Mayim Bialik says she's the one with the photographic memory, so she remembers lines by their position on the page and is horribly thrown by new pages.)

As a singer, I have some of the same issues, though I don't have to worry so much about other people's cues. One of my folksinging friends says he does what one of your actors does - he has to write songs out until he can remember them. I'm more like Parsons, in that I practice songs by singing them and matching verses to accompaniment (although I usually will also have written the lyrics down once if I'm learning them off a recording). I've always been a rather quick study with songs. After a 20-year break, I found that remembering the melodies often caused whole verses of songs to appear magically in my head.

Like one of the actors says, also, ballads (I mean traditional ballads, not pop ballads) that have a plot and structure are relatively easy to remember; stuff without that can be very hard. The hardest song I ever learned was Dana Robinson's "What Would Woody Do?" because there are a *lot* of words and the logic isn't obvious. In a different vein, I had a lot of trouble with Dave Carter's "When I Go" until I could understand the song as a series of images rather than as pure words (my more natural mode).


An (is my actual name) said...

Thanks for this. It's remarkable how different the processes are. Surely you must know we want you to tell us who the actors are. I hope you'll share when it's all said and done.

Mike Botula said...

My memory makes me really appreciate a good cue card guy...or a prompter.

Johnny Walker said...

I have a Friday question about actors, actually:

Obviously you've said that most actors are a dream to work with. Professional, courteous, lacking in ego... However, we all know that there's a few bad apples.

As a writer, do your feeling for the actor ever makes things more difficult when you're trying to write for the character? For example, if a really sweet and likeable character was being portrayed by (obvious go to example) Roseanne (before everyone else in the world had an opinion on Roseanne), would it make it difficult to separate the character from the actor?

I ask because I even as a viewer I can find it tricky... and Roseanne is a great example. Before she became famous for being who she is, I only knew her character on the show... who (in my mind) was a fantastic character. Great mother and wife, with all her priorities in the right place, with a wicked wit to boot. Now I know the personality behind the character, it can niggle a bit, when I watch the show.

Is it ever an issue for writers?

Steve R. said...

I've almost managed to memorize this post from its first time around, almost three years ago to the day. Happy early anniversary! :-)

All snark aside, I review those three posts regularly. Thanks for the rerun.

Steve McLean said...

As a visual learner (with only stage acting experience), it's easy for me to "see" the page with my highlighted lines. The blocking of other actors also become cues. The most difficult time I ever had was as a patient in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". The problem was not dialogue within a scene but in keeping track of the order of scenes since so many of them were in the dayroom but just on a different day ("Is this the scene where we watch TV or is it group therapy?")

The Mutt said...

I discovered an interesting trick when I was trying to learn Macbeth's soliloquies: do them in a funny character voice. My neighbors must of thought I was insane, hearing me declaim Shakespeare's words in a hillbilly accent or in Elmer Fudd's voice. But it really worked. It is a lot easier to remember a joke than a speech.

Also, get on your feet and do it out loud. I've never had any success trying to learn lines sitting and reading.

RCP said...

I've wondered about this.

Johnny said...

For those interested in learning, there's a website called that boasts a new technique... I can now read a Chinese food menu in its original language thanks to the site.

Sure, I've yet to find a situation where it's become even slightly useful, but hey... it's free!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hm... Does this mean that visual writers make actors jobs easier, or more complicated?

I'm a visual writer - as in I see the scene playing in my mind as I type it out, so if dialogue doesn't sound quite right as I type it the visualization stops and I have to go back to find where the flow started to end.

For memorizing though, I usually read over the lines over and over again and mouth them rather than say them out loud. If I go over the script minutes before the scene I can recall most everything. XD

Nick said...

I'm going to take a guess that actor number #4 was John Ratzenberger? Just the Charles brothers clue and it got me thinking about who had big chunks of dialogue on Cheers....

chuckcd said...

I would tape the other actors lines and then play them back to cue my lines.

Mat Nichol said...

Definitely easier if you move around while learning text I've found. I tend to walk around in circles or up and down the hallway at home. A friend of mine learns her lines while ironing. There is some part of the brain that links physical action with memory so The Jim Parsons thing certainly makes sense.