Sunday, October 09, 2016

How to memorize scripts part 2

Here’ the final  installment in how actors memorize scripts.  Part one 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.  


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Something similar applies to the process of learning songs, though one good thing is you don't have to deal with remembering cues. I have a friend who has to write out the lyrics in order to learn them. I've never done that; I used to practice new songs while driving to gigs - repetition is big for me, partly because singing it out loud I also *hear* the words, which is part of it for me. As the actors say, logical/good lyrics are easier to learn than ones lacking clear connections/story. Traditional ballads are relatively easy because there's action and characters; the hardest are more lyrical contemporary songs. Playing an instrument provides physical actions and aural cues, like the actors talk about, and helps remember the words - the hardest are unaccompanied songs, where a break in your memory means radio silence.

But I find the biggest thing that helps me remember lyrics is performing the song in front of an audience. There's something about the occasion, the adrenaline, etc., that helps fix it.


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

My favorite story here in the blog was of Nick Colasanto as Coach in early Cheers episodes who would tape his lines around the set. Somehow I think it helped him create that halting, brain-beaned delivery that made us all love him more...

John Hammes said...

Jack Klugman was touring in the live stage version of "On Golden Pond", Spring of 2003. This would put him in his early 80s. His throat cancer surgery was common knowledge at the time, replacing his Oscar Madison/Quincy voice with something of a raspy, hoarse whisper. Being well mic'd however, his delivery, timing, and attitude were still forceful, and he, cast, and crew carried on for just over two hours. Klugman did not miss a beat. Whatever memorizing system he used worked for him - at 81! He was amazing. I am lucky if I can memorize where the car keys are placed.

Unknown said...

Hi Ken, sorry this is off topic to the blog post of the day. Took my brother to see your play last night and we both had a great time. It was funny and heartfelt and a thoroughly professional production -- you got a great cast. Just curious, did the people in the theater next door rip off your book for "Generation Me"? For a minute there I thought you had two shows running at once. Anyway many thanks for a fun night out. A home run!

Matt said...

I don't even understand what actor 1 was saying.

Mike Barer said...

Thank you for bringing up this topic, because it has always been on my mind. On a smaller scale, my dad starred in some productions at the Walla Walla Little Theatre. I remember him rehearsing lines with my Mom (who was never in a play). My guess is that professional actors are just gifted with that ability.
I'm sure that in a live play, everyone fears going blank at a crucial time. I've heard that many actors just make up a line at the time.

Mike Barer said...

My question is, Ken, have you ever been on stage? I know many producers and directors insert themselves into a show.

Covarr said...

The director of the show I'm in now had a really unusual method that I've found works pretty well:

Read each sentence multiple times in a row, each time emphasizing a different word. Not only does the repetition really help, but you get the chance of experimenting with deliveries as you do, and it helps learn the line more exactly as each time you're focusing on a specific word.

I don't know if he made it up himself or got it from somewhere else, but I do know that's what I used for my current show and it's worked quite well.