Sunday, January 07, 2018

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.  


Lenora said...

Yes, thanks actors. Your craft is so fascinating, it makes us want to know every aspect of your work in excruciating detail.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, I'd like to propose a follow-up question: how do you *forget* those lines, once learned, so they don't interfere with your next part? (Journalists are highly skilled at forgetting most of what they learn for each article.) I'm thinking of languages, where for a while the latest language you've learned pops out when you're trying to speak one you learned earlier (not your native language, though). Is that sort of bleed-through common among actors?

Musicians have an advantage in learning song lyrics, in that the action of playing the song (guitar, banjo, autoharp, whatever) helps cue the lyrics, particularly if you're good enough to be able to vary the arrangement as the song progresses. That said, there are songs - such as traditional folk ballads - where the story carries the lyrics along and makes them easy to remember, while others, usually contemporary composed songs with lots of imagery, can be very difficult to remember because the sequence doesn't follow an obvious logic.


blinky said...

The most interesting part was left out: who the actors are. Why wouldn't they want their name given. It seems very academic and innocent.

E. Yarber said...

Thanks for collecting these insights. I'm glad you didn't use the names of the actors involved, because the general response would probably devolve into backstage gossip instead of a general understanding of craft.

Back when I was working with tyro scripters, I would definitely have shown them these posts over and over again. While you may think understanding these techniques applies strictly to acting, it's every bit as important for WRITERS to understand how to write material for the benefit of the actors expected to deliver it. Your sources rightfully complained about the misery of having to memorize poorly written scripts, and I was always on their side when preparing them. Sloppy writers always assumed that actors were machines who could easily absorb anything put if front of them. They would hit the same notes over and over, or have the characters randomly shift from one personality to the next.

The fact is that drama involves a steady progression of logic on both the macro and micro level. Consider this; Hamlet kills Polonius, whose daughter Ophelia then goes crazy and kills herself, leading to her brother Laertes confronting Hamlet at the funeral, resulting in the climactic duel. None of these events can be taken out of sequence, and once you understand the progression you can't leave any of them out. In the same way, a scene between three characters deciding where to go for lunch has to have the same sense of momentum, the same landmarks and pivots, albeit on a smaller scale.

It's easy to regard dialogue as plastic, but the best scripts are as carefully assembled as the notes of a symphony. You wouldn't expect the musicians to approximate the notes of a Beethoven piece without the harmony of the whole to collapse. Billy Wilder is an example of a director who meticulously indicated each word and bit of business on the page and refused to let his actors deviate a hair from the script, which then flowed seamlessly on screen when the audience finally saw it. While that may seem dictatorial, it's also practical when you consider that the actual time to FILM such stuff seems to flicker by in an eye blink compared to the space a writer has to make sure the screenplay is solid. Most projects don't have time to experiment on set.

There should be a REASON for each word the character says, as well as a consistent A,B,C,D progression for the progress of dialogue. If a character does something unexpected, it's not because you're jumping to A,B,C... H, but because you hid where A,B and C were leading. Good actors will pick up on the logic and find their own way to internalize it when interpreting the character, just as some musicians will be able to play classical pieces without needing to resort to reading the score on stage. In both cases the performer has absorbed the structure the composer created.

Sorry to be long-winded here, but the point I'm trying to make is that a good writer tries to help the actor memorize the part by making the material follow a clear path. If you slap in random one-liners or weave around too much, it'll be harder for them to see where they're going. In the end, it'll be harder for the AUDIENCE to follow as well.

Stubblejumpers Cafe said...

It reminds me of singing. Once you've learned the words to a song, they seem to "remember" all by themselves -- even when you can't remember them if you just try to speak them.

I'd've loved to know who each actor was.


jenmoon said...

I guess the first one was in Cheers...and if there's a shot of Alec Baldwin randomly there, hmmmm?

jenmoon said...

Well, the first one was in Cheers, and if there's a random shot of Alec Baldwin, hmmmm?

Dr Loser said...

Hardly a random shot of Alec Baldwin, since his prowess was quoted by one of the anonymous actors. And I don't suppose it helps, but the A-B-C ... H progression is, in musical terms, actually a regression to B-flat. (Stupid musical quibble.)

I really liked the reference to the Meisner technique, which seems to broadly cover what a lot of the other actors said. Counter-intuitively, it might be easier to memorize your lines if you also memorize what the other actors are doing. Or maybe it's not so counter-intuitive -- you have to memorize your cues, too, don't you?

I wonder how long it took Marcel Marceau to memorize his line in "Silent Movie?"

Dr Loser said...

"Au debut de faire cela, j'ai besoin de comprendre le motivarion de charactere!"

No you don't, Marcel.

"Parfait! Vrai mot entiere!"

Ken said...

I assume that memorizing lines for something like the "West Wing" would be more challengeing then say the dialogue from say the "A Team"

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken-the-commenter: I think the reverse. As annoying as his work can be, Sorkin's dialogue has a rhythm and cadence that carries you along. I would bet actors just *love* learning his lines because they do have logic and construction patterns that help you. I'm not too familiar with the A TEAM, but shorter and action-packed is not always easier.


Arthur Mee said...


My brother-in-law is an actor who works in TV constantly ... turn on the tube and wait five minutes, he's probably in a commercial, or on a detective drama playing "Cop #2" or "Electrical Repairman" or "Guy Who Gives The Vital Clue To Our Hero When He Says Something Seemingly Innocuous".

His method involves memorizing lines in the shower! At any given time, he'll have a dozen script pages in plastic coating lining his shower. His shower is finished only when he can rhyme off all the lines.

He's a VERY hygienic guy!

ChipO said...

Yes. Thank you.
thank you for admitting not everyone memorizes easily and for a few it is indeed agony.

Ken said...

To Wendy Grossman
I expect that the actors probably did appreciate Sorkin's dialogue better plus, as a generic comment on action films/scifi, it must be a special talent to perform realistically (acting not action) in front of a green screen.
My comment about the A team ( an 80's TV series of limited dialogue and extranous explosions) is that those scripts/ dialogue were more along the line of "i'm gonna get you sucka" (Mr T) and the infamous George Peppard line of "I love it when a plan comes together" is with greatly more limited dialogue ( such as it was) that oft times consistd of schoolyard taunts ( like demented donnies tweets) that memorization would be easier.
Coupled with famaliarity of characters over 2 or 3 seasons and sprinkled with repeitive catch phrases that memorizing speechs was not a major concern basically because of the lack of any speeches.
But I do take your point.