Saturday, January 06, 2018

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.


Nate said...

The greatest actor Brando, used to have his lines written on billboards, baby diapers etc... No memorizing and all for him 😂

Nathan said...

On another subject Ken. Have you seen these Family Guy references of Cheers:

and MASH ref:

and the best ref of Everybody Loves Raymond, where Patty tries to kill Raymond:

Dave Creek said...

George Takei, in his autobiography, tells of actors (not him!) during live TV broadcasts in the fifties taping slips of paper with their lines onto furniture or anywhere they could get away with. One actor, if he forgot a line, would simply mouth words without actually saying anything, as if the audio had gone out!

Anonymous said...

Greatest actor - Brando. Perhaps for movies.
Depends on the medium. Case to be made he was the greatest movie actor, altho there are certainly some names that would rival his. His theater career certainly had it's moments like Streetcar but there wasn't much to it after that.
Greatest actor- Olivier. For theater, his would be the first name to come up.
Greatest actor radio -interesting question. I might go with Jack Benny.
Greatest actor television - I'll go out on a limb and say William Shatner. Without question he hammed it up with the best. But look over his 60 year career. He created at least three legendary TV characters. he starred in quite possibly the best episodes of Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (check out The Glass Eye with Jessica Tandy, no slouch herself). William Shatner certainly couldn't do what Brando or Olivier did, but it's pretty good certainty Brando and Olivier couldn't o what William Shatner did.

Take the for mediums - TVv. movies, theater and radio- you probably get you different answers.Different skills required.
And if you ask who was the best on all four, that's a very hard question

scottmc said...

I recently watched a Dick Cavett show from the mid 80's. He had a panel of comedy writers, including Gary David Goldberg and Norman Steinberg. It was a fascinating hour. Steinberg spoke about once trying to hand Cavett a monologue while both were in Bloomingdale's,he also talked about bringing Richard Pryor in to co-write Blazing Saddles. Goldberg replied to Cavett's comment that the best comedy writing was during the height of radio by saying that twenty years from then that the 80's might be considered a high point. He also mentioned what he looks for in a script. He said that format and structure can be taught and what he is looking for is a joke written for one character that could only be said by that character. But the thing that struck me most was the mention of some shows airing during that time that I had no memory of. Norm Steinberg mentioned the Ellen Burstyn show. I had to look it up. I saw that it featured Megan Mullally. He also mentioned Six O'Clock Report. That sounded pretty good. I searched that and found its cast included Laurence Fishburn, Phil Hartman and Bill Paxton. The Honeymooners is the most famous one and done comedy. What are some of the one seasons shows that you were most sorry to see not continue, did the show Steve Gordan wrote for Danny Thomas last only a year? Also, that Cavett show opened with a shot of the audience and someone in the crowd looked a little like you.

Bryan said...

I would think plays would be the most demanding, particularly Shakespeare, because the audience may know the script ahead of time and will spot your failures, instead of a film or tv show the audience sees cold.

This brings back memories of running lines for my father. I don't think he had any tricks. He just gutted it out over the course of rehearsals.

Anonymous said...

best actor in all four mediums:
I might go with someone whose name you don't hear much today:
Charles Laughton
movies among the top
theater -superb
radio - excellent
television - not that often but when he was on he was good (he introduced Elvis in his first big national appearance)

VincentS said...

Ken, when I met you at your seminar at the New School and I asked you and the rest of the panel what staves off writer's block you answered, "Fear." As an actor, I can say the same can be applied to actors memorizing lines. Fear of looking like an absolute schmuck onstage or onset with EVERYBODY looking at you. Believe me, that's ample motivation.

Dr Loser said...

One small comment on memorizing through the ages (ie the last 2,800 years or so.)

The original performers back then were actually the writers (or synthesisers), who, like Homer, relied upon the structure and the rhythm to carry their words. Obviously it helps if you "wrote" it yourself. And obviously it helps if you can ad-lib ... which is another nice thing about rhythm. You dry up, you can throw in a common phrase that fits the rhythm ("Wine darkened seas" being one example.) En passant, it's so lovely to see this technique replicated in today's Internet memes and, of course, those eloquent tweents that feature the nonce word "bigly."

Now, I know nothing about this, but I'd bet my house on the fact that even actors in Shakespearean plays did more or less the same thing. It works for the audience. That's all you need.

Which brings me to my small comment. Theoretically the author of a play can sue you or otherwise cause you considerable inconvenience if you go off-message, as it were.

But has that ever happened?

thirteen said...

I remember reading in Charlton Heston's memoir (An Actor's Life) that he could "float" dialogue -- not really memorizing it, but keeping it in a sort of reserve mode, ready to tap -- for five minutes or so at a time. After that, he'd have to look at the script again. I don't know what he did on stage.

Covarr said...

For me, I feel like I have to memorize things on two levels: Which line to deliver when, and the exact phrasing of each line. The first is more important, because a slight misphrasing will still usually make sense and can cue the next line, but the second can really make the first easier.

To achieve both of these levels, I have a multi-step process:

1. DON'T WASTE TIME. If I have my script before the first cast readthrough (definitely more feasible in theater than in sitcoms or something), I'm working on my lines before that first readthrough.

2. I always act my lines, never just read them. Even if I'm in a public place going over them silently, you'd better believe I'm hearing them acted in my head. If we've started blocking, I'm also visualizing it as best I can as I read, to help strengthen that connection.

3. The first time I read any given line, I read it over and over again, each time with emphasis on a different word. This gets me thinking about potential delivery ideas and reinforces exact phrasing, cementing the line itself even if not the cue or scene.

4. I practice small sections, usually a scene or so (less if it's something like BAREFOOT IN THE PARK where a single scene is a full act), starting that section over every time I make a mistake or need to check my line. Generally, I'll be reading the script with a sheet of paper over it, moving down one line at a time to really reinforce my cues.

5. Once I've mastered a few smaller chunks, I'll go back and try to do them all together as a larger bit. Even if I can do every portion of the show individually, on stage it's useless if I can't do it all together and in order. This also helps solidify areas earlier on and prevents me from losing things from going too long without running it.

All in all, it's about buckling down and actually doing it. No matter what your method, no matter how good your memory, there is going to be some time investment. No technique in the world is a substitute for time and effort.

@Dr Loser: Yes, it has happened. I don't think it's very common; for anything but the highest-profile productions, enforcement could be costly and a logistical nightmare. In general, I think most writers wouldn't care as long as you make a good faith effort to follow it accurately.

Heck, when I directed a play I wrote myself a few months ago, one of the first things I told my cast was that they were completely free to paraphrase if they struggled with any lines as long as they didn't change the meaning or tone of it or break any jokes, and as long as they could still be used as cues for the rest of the cast. I know that's an unusual situation, what with being both writer and director, but my goal was definitely to make the show the best and most natural it could be, not to stroke my own ego at the precise artistry of my every exact word.

Can I speak for all other writers? No, obviously not. Certainly, even minor paraphrasing could completely wreck something like OUR TOWN. But I would wager that most good writers care more about preserving intent and meaning than anything else, and understand that it doesn't make a substantial difference if an actor accidentally says "9 pm" instead of "9 at night", y'know?

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I've mentioned this before, but I really appreciate what the performers on "Saturday Night Live" have endured all these years.

I understand that many changes take place between dress rehearsal earlier in the evening and show time at 11:30.

Add to that the pressure of live television, plus the fact that some of the guest hosts are not professional actors, and it's a wonder how the show gets on at all...yet it has for more than 40 years.

Yes, you can tell that the actors are frequently reading cue cards on SNL, but can you really blame them?

Mike Bloodworth said...

I can barely even remember stuff I wrote let alone someone else's words. The only thing that works for me is repetition, ad nauseam. If I may digress, when I went to see one of Ken's recent plays an actor in one of the other plays obviously didn't know his lines. He mumbled and hesitated (not in character) it detracted from the play to the point that it was essentially ruined. I feel sorry for the author and the other actor in the play.

thirteen said...

Kevin -- Yes, I can blame the actors on SNL from all-too-obviously reading their cue cards because (for me, anyway) it's really, really distracting. I don't watch SNL very often anymore because of it. You don't see actors in kinescopes from the '50s reading cue cards on live TV, although they must have had at least as many script changes and so forth to deal with before air. I think the SNL cast has been allowed to become lazy about this. Tell you the truth, I don't see why the show is done live, as improvisation is not permitted. Might as well pre-record the bloody thing and get everything right.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Charles Laughton died in 1962. What theater performance did you see that made him superb, no, one of the best of any actors of all time in your opinion? I mean other than reading about it on wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous.
I don't what Charles Laughton dying in 1962 has to do with anything.
As for the theater, Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was one of the great theater personages of the 20th Century, called Charles Laughton a very great classical actor. I think he knows- more than Wikipedia at least
His performance in A Midsummer's Night's Dream for the RSC in 1960 is regarded as one of the greatest ever.
That would qualify him. Put that together with his movie career (at least three or four legendary performances), his radio broadcasts and hi admittedly limited television performances including a great Wagon Train episode -
I'm open to who was better.