So, you ask, Gentle Reader, how does Your Humble Blogger go about memorizing lines for a play? I’m glad you asked. No, really, I am.
Of course, as with anything I say about Acting (Acting!) this is all just what I happen to do, which is not to say it is what would work for anyone else, or that it works particularly well for me, nor is it to say that I won’t find something next time that would work better, should there be a next time. In fact, the only reason, really, that I’m giving in to your pestering about it is the hope that someone will chime in with an Even Better Way for me to make use of. Anyway.
The first step, of course, is to read the play. A lot. Over and over and over again, until you really just can’t read it one more time. Not aloud, mind you, at least not much, not particularly aloud at this stage, as it’s (I find) too easy to memorize the sound of the line, inflection and all, and if I do that before rehearsals begin, I find it difficult to play with the other characters rather than just near them. So silently, but often.
The next step, for me, has become typing all my scenes into the computer. I used to write them out longhand, but typing them in has the second benefit of allowing me to print out sides, and then when we get to rehearsing and blocking, I have nice big letter-size sheets (one-sided) to scribble notes on. That’s a side matter, though, the main thing is that copying the thing out makes me look at each individual word, look at each line individually. If I find that something doesn’t type properly, that is, if I keep wanting to type in a different line or different wording, then I make a mental note of it, as I will probably have difficulty remembering the thing correctly later.
Then proofread the typed bit, which of course means more scrutiny of the individual words. Again, if I’ve got something wrong that’s more than a typo, I try to figure out why I’m getting it wrong. If, for instance, I keep messing up the rhythm of the lines, adding more syllables with synonyms or filler phrases, then I have the rhythm of the speech wrong, and am probably getting the character wrong. Or the writer isn’t very good at rhythm. And, of course, I am. No, but sometimes the writer just hasn’t bothered to make the line scan interestingly, and I attempt to force it to do that, as if I were reading Shakespeare or Shaw or Mamet, and it doesn’t always work. Mostly, though, playwrights pay a lot of attention to words, and almost by definition, get them right for the characters they are creating to say them.
Then it’s time to get serious about memorizing. Mostly I do this the good old-fashioned way of reading the line from my notebook, then clutching the notebook to my chest and muttering the line aloud, then going back to the notebook and checking. Over and over. At this point, I am starting to try out different line readings, too, if only by necessity. I do each line a lot of times, then go to the next, then do two or three together, then go back to doing them individually. There isn’t much point in doing longer stretches until I’ve got it line by line.
Once I’m that far, then it’s time to drag in my Best Reader (or other helpful assistant) for reading lines. I attempt, at this point, to only vaguely gesture towards line readings; again the point is not to memorize how the line comes out, but only what the words are, and ideally the order of the words as well. Ideally. Anyway, this is very tedious for everybody, but it’s terribly important to have somebody looking at the script, otherwise I don’t know if I’m learning the correct line or a phantom line I’ve just made up. Usually I find there are several lines I’ve learned incorrectly, and then if I go back in tech week and try to get them right I screw up everything. Not good.
The idea, by the way, for those Gentle Readers who have not done stage acting before, is that you have to get these things not just into your memory as a thing you can remember if you think about it, but in like a catch-phrase, a thing you can’t not remember. If somebody says (to a person of more-or-less my age) “Tastes Great”, I don’t need to say “Less Filling”, but I can’t stop myself from thinking it. That’s the level of memory cues have to be. I can’t be up there thinking what’s my next line, I have to know that when I hear my cue I won’t be able to keep the next line from popping into my head come hell or high water, so I can be thinking about how to keep my moustache from coming unglued. So that not only means reading each line of the play as often as I saw that beer commercial, it means somehow making each line of the play as catchy and memorable as the beer commercial, at least to me.
Which is ever so much easier in a really good play.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,