6 Memorization Hacks for the Actor

Perhaps one of the most tedious tasks for actors–universally across the globe, and since the moment when the very first actor endeavored to take a scripted work and translate it into a performance onstage–is learning lines. Granted, some people have a natural knack for memorization, and will certainly have an easier time than those for whom the process comes with more difficulty, but virtually everyone, at some point or another, will face a memorization task that is challenging to them. For actors (unlike the average adult), memorization–sometimes of thousands of words for a single performance–is a part of the job description, and simply cannot be avoided. So, whether seasoned veteran or total newbie, here are some tips and tricks to help aid you in the feat of script memorization.  

1. Use the script.

This first tip is quite basic, but sometimes it’s worth going back to basics: use the physical pages of the script to help you memorize your lines. Using a blank sheet of paper, read through your scene(s), hiding upcoming lines beneath the paper, and uncovering them as you read. When you get to the end of the line immediately preceding yours (your “cue”), pause and recite your own line from memory. Then, you can move the paper down and check for accuracy. Repeating this process over and over again is a good, solid way to commit your lines to memory.

2. Write it out.

Another useful way to memorize lines is to physically write them down on paper. This can be especially useful for soliloquies or other lengthy chunks of text. When you do this, you are not only exposing yourself again to your lines (which is really the bottom line–no pun intended!–of memorization), but pairing it with the act of writing, which takes longer than simply saying the words, and can help you better internalize them. Kinesthetic learners (those who learn best by physically doing, as opposed to auditory or visual learners) will find this practice especially beneficial.

3. Record your scenes.

A great way to learn lines–and one that’s now easier than ever to do, with our excellent array of technology–is to record your scenes and play them back to yourself. My favorite way to do this is to record everyone else’s lines, leave a pause where my own line needs to be, and then say my line when it comes up. This is especially helpful for familiarizing yourself with your cues, and integrating where and how your character’s lines fit in within the context of the scene. And if you know yourself to be an auditory learner, this tip is definitely for you.

4. Incorporate movement.

When I utilize tip #3 to learn lines, I almost always do my listening while walking. Research has actually shown that movement can aid in the act of memorization, and I can personally attest that there does seem to be something about the action and momentum of walking (especially once you reach that state where your legs feel like they’re on “autopilot”) that makes the recalling of lines come more easily and naturally. It’s worth a try!

5. Focus on context.

In contrast to rote memorization (memorization based on sheer repetition, without much thought given to meaning or understanding of the text), deliberately focusing on context can be a good way to commit lines to memory. When you focus on context, you pay close attention not only to the words the other characters in the scene are saying, but more importantly to the meaning they have–both to your character, and within the story as a whole. Not only is this a good practice for starting to get into the mind of your character and later optimizing your performance, but if you’re in the midst of a performance one day and suddenly “go up” (utterly forget your lines), being very well-versed in the full meaning of the scene, and the meaning of your character’s interaction with other characters, can help immensely to jog your memory and help you to regain your footing.

6. Practice before you sleep.

This last tip is one that I happened to figure out on my own, long ago, and have only recently learned has a genuine, scientific basis: work on memorization right before you go to sleep. According to research, the sleeping brain synthesizes information, and thus by working on your memorization immediately before sleeping, you’re ensuring that this information is at the forefront of your mind. Then, while asleep, your brain is more likely to file the information away into your long term memory. Hey–you have to memorize. You have to sleep. Might as well make your brain work for you while you’re doing what you’d be doing anyway!

These are only a handful of the countless techniques one can employ to successfully memorize a script. No doubt, if you’re an actor, you have your own tried-and-true methods for getting the job done. It’s important to note, of course, that there really is no “magic bullet” when it comes to memorization–no way to skim a script once and have it perfectly committed to memory forever. Whatever technique(s) you choose, you should know that buckling down and doing the work is the bottom line every time. Repetition is key, and always will be. Happy memorizing!

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Elizabeth Elizabeth Sekora is an actress and classically trained soprano living in Los Angeles. She has 24 years of experience in theatre, film, opera, television, and voiceover work, and holds a Bachelor of Music degree from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. www.elizabethsekora.com.