Stop Trying to Memorize Your Lines

Memorization is commonly defined as the following: “to commit to memory; learn by heart.” I would argue, however, that the second half of this definition has become lost somehow for many actors. We tend to steer toward the least amount of homework possible when it comes to learning our lines for a new script. We memorize lines as though we were preparing for a multiple choice test. But the version of memorization we’ve adopted for test-taking is actually detrimental to our work as actors, and here’s why: rote memorization creates insurmountable obstacles that the actor must overcome in order to fully realize a character’s truthful inner life on stage. Here’s how:

  1. Subconscious inflections and “deciding” how a line should be spoken. Whether conscious or unconscious, many of us believe that there is a “right” way to deliver a line. This belief causes us to memorize and repeat the line a certain way in rehearsal. This form of memorization, however, eliminates all other possibilities of how the character might speak a line during the performance because the actor has already chosen how the line will be spoken, and therefore how the character will react, and therefore how the scene and play will go, leaving no room for the potential action of the scene. Theatre is most exciting when the audience and the characters don’t know what will happen next, even though the play is scripted. Once you commit a line inflection to memory, you create a subconscious hurdle for yourself once the play begins– you fight to forget what happens next in order to live truthfully from moment to moment on stage. But it will take a lot of work to open up those lines to be used for their active purpose instead of a predetermined one. Why make your job more difficult than it already is?
  2. Visual memory will not help you here. I am a visual learner. Most of my academic success in high school came from the ability to recall information by visualizing it on the page of the textbook with my mind’s eye. Naturally, I applied this technique to remembering my lines once I began acting, but now I cringe at the thought. By picturing lines on a page, I was immediately drawing my actor-self onto the stage, taking myself out of the moment and into the script in my mind. Nothing could be further from helpful for an actor. If the goal is to leave the actor-self backstage, then why give yourself the opportunity to welcome them onstage? Do everything you can to dive into the world of the play and leave your actor-self out of it, or else you are just asking to become self-conscious and naked onstage instead of nonjudgmentally allowing the character to exist and pursue action.
  3. Depth of character: regurgitation vs. living in the moment. When you simply memorize your lines in order to be able to regurgitate them perfectly, you lose the depth of character that comes with imagining why that character needs to say the line at that specific moment in time. It is not enough to be word perfect (although don’t get me wrong, that is a part of your job), but you need to also discover for yourself through rigorous homework why the playwright meant for your character to speak what they do when they do so. A script is like a puzzle, and it is the actor’s job to piece the intentions of the character together and make the inner life make sense, like a road map of possible actions you can pull from depending on what your partner does on a given day. If you are busy trying to remember your lines perfectly without doing the proper homework, you are not living in the moment. Regurgitating is NOT equal to pursuing an action.
  4. Subtext and what you could be missing. Human interaction is laden with subtext. Very rarely do we say what we mean. This is reflected in plays, as they represent life. So, what memorizing can do is overshadow how you detect subtext because you become focused on the words rather than what the character means by them. Don’t miss out, go for intentions and the words will follow, as they must, since the playwright wrote them with the intention of the character in mind. I once had an awesome teacher tell me that the words on the page don’t matter, what matters is what the character is DOING with them.
  5. Added responsibilities: it’s not your job to do it the “right” way. Trust yourself. The main goal of the average “memorizer” is to be able to do the right thing: to say the right words at the right time on stage. This, however, is the bare minimum of what you need to act. And while it may be fueled by a desire to do well, this is no excuse to stop at the bare minimum and consider it acting. The good news is that there is no right way to do anything in art. There is only what works and what doesn’t, and luckily that is not your job to figure out, it’s the director’s. So while you honestly and fully imagine an array of actions this character may pursue, the director can watch your performance in rehearsal and say yes to this one, no to that because it doesn’t tell the story the way they envision. Rehearsal is the time for glorious failure, trying out new actions, and using the director’s guidance to inform the inner life you are creating. Do not weigh yourself down with responsibilities that are simply not yours; that’s the beauty of a collaborative art form: you can do the work, and let them do theirs. 

So, if you’re not supposed to memorize, what are you supposed to do to remember your lines? The answer lies in homework: lots of it. I mentioned before that a script is like a puzzle–well, working at home is your chance to figure it out. Spend more time than you think you need to with your script, reading through it more times than a few, and discover what your character needs from who she’s talking to and how she might be able to get it. Go moment by moment and unveil possibilities of action, but don’t decide on one. Figure out why each specific word needs to be said; why this word was chosen as opposed to any other word. The more the words mean to you personally, in your soul, the less you will need to think about why they are necessary. This may sound like a lot of work…that’s because it is. I can guarantee it is more work than most young actors are used to doing. So, if you’re serious about diving in, commit and trust yourself. Trust that if you work on your script in this detailed manner every day, that it will begin to unfold in your imagination, and settle into your subconscious, so that you don’t need to engage the actor-self at all in order to engage the words the character needs to say. Every time you pick up your script, trust that there is always more to discover that you haven’t seen before. Get creative. Make it your art. Allow yourself plenty of time for this process and it will yield results. It is in this way that we can begin to sharpen the “memorization” game that a lot of actors are playing and revitalize the art form. By doing more work, we honor the craft, and put the heart back into “learn by heart.”


Mantra: I will always aim to discover more. I will practice curiosity.


Coming up in my next post: FAQs about how to stop memorizing!



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