Memorization Last week, I finally passed a substantial memorization test.

Since 2008, I've been in five theatrical productions. Each one required me to learn lines.

Memorization Has Never Come Easily.
I'm not a natural memorizer. I prefer to wing it, relying on wit and improvisation.

So, I failed to fully memorize my lines for the first four plays. There were moments of stage panic, the blood chilling fear of falling out of character. During the best moments, I was acting, but was never free enough — from The Fear — to truly be the character. Not good enough.

But last week during ConAm's XMAS, I had my lines. They came to me, reliably, without undue anxiety. I was able to play the role, enjoyably for me and the audience. What was different this time?

I knew my lines. I had memorized them. Not cold, but darn near completely.

That let me act, rather than recite. It was a lot more fun.

I Believe In Memorization.
During the past decade or so, we — as a nation seeking to educate its people — rejected rote memorization. Memorization became the sign of an education producing doers rather than thinkers: factory workers and masons rather than engineers and architects.

And what, pray tell, is ignoble about working in a factory or a trade? Why would we ignorantly disregard the skills and efforts that built — and are needed to sustain — this country? Why would we disdain the hands that sew and hew for us? O, short-sighted, comfort-seeking countryman, learn to fix thy own commode!

Now, when everything is on the Interwebs, we don't need to remember anything — except where we put that damn cell phone. Because, once the beloved cell phone is found, our facts are at hand, a mere Google away.

But memorization is a fundamental exercise of the brain. It is the bench press of mental fitness training. It helps the brain stay pliable and plastic — and neuroplasticity matters. We memorize, not only to remember a fact or song, but also to have stronger memory muscle.

I'm going to get my next creativity class to team memorize a poem, each student taking one stanza of Robert Browning's beautiful Rabbi Ben Ezra. ("Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be,….")

How To Memorize
A year ago, I wrote about memorizing. I wrote about it, rather than spending the time actually memorizing my lines. (That's a sign that I wasn't going to be ready. And writing about memorization is not memorizing. It's like porno, a poor substitute for the real thing.)

Anyway, I used new methods this year and they really worked. Actually, they are old methods, with some technology thrown in. Here's what I did.

I followed the effective suggestions of four memorable teachers from Available Light Theatre: Matt Slaybaugh, Ian Short, Eleni Papaleonardos and Acacia Duncan. Here are their suggestions:

  1. One line at a time. Repeat a line aloud 100 times without acting. Just chant it with a variety of inflection and with no inflection. Over and over again. It quickly becomes muscle memory. After repeating the line so many times, there really is no other way — no other words in no other order —  those words could come out. After mastering a line, add a second line. And the next. Onward. This seems slow and painstaking, but it works wonderfully and — objectively — you only have so many lines and each of them needs to be memorized. One at at time makes sense.
  2. Listen to the play. Record the entire play — swiftly again without much inflection — and listen to it over and over again. (I use Garage Band on my Macintosh, then burn it to a CD.) Speak or whisper along with the recording. It's great while driving. This teaches the flow of the narrative, the order of scenes, the logic of the structure. Again: over and over.
  3. Learn your cues. Record a different version of the play: just the others' lines. Leave the right amount of silence between for your lines — so you can say your lines as you listen to the recording. Practice it over and over and you will master your cues.
  4. Don't lose your voice. I need to hear my mouth forming the words but, if I am too nervous about the memorization, my neck will be tight and my voice strained. And I will lose my voice during the memorization. How terrible: to know the lines, but not be able to say them! Separate memorization from acting.
  5. Take breaks. It's too dull to keep at it endlessly. Take a break every half hour.
  6. Review all lines every morning and every afternoon. Even after you know the lines and are off-book. Even on the days of performances.

Sound like drugery? Poor baby. Want to know your lines?

You'll know you have them memorized when you can go about your day — taking a shower, folding laundry — reciting your lines.

Which reminds me of a joke.

An aspiring actor humbly peeks into the door of a theatre agent's shabby office on Broadway.

The agent is on the phone, saying "Yeah…. Yeah…. Yeah…. Hang on a minute." He looks at the actor and barks, "Say: 'Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?'"

The actor screws up his best dramatic face and deeply intones, "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?"

"Great," says the agent. Then, into the phone, "Yeah, I got a guy for that. Sure. He's on his way." He hangs up the phone. "O.K., kid. this is your lucky day. You're hired," says his agent. "Go to Grand Central. Take the first train on the New Haven Rail Line. Get off at Stamford. A car will be waiting for you at the station. You're going to the dinner theatre there. An actor just fell sick. You have one line: 'Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?' Got it? Good. Go."

Rushing to Grand Central, the actor prepares for his moment on stage: "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" He hustles to the train, "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?" All the way on the train, "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?… Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?… Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?"

He bounds off the train at Stamford and a cab driver says, "You the actor?" 

He replies: "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?"

"Get in," says the driver. "We ain't got a moment to lose."

They careen to the theatre and screech to a stop on the gravel drive at the stage entrance. "Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?… Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?…"

He rushes into the door where the stage manager says, "Who are you?"

"Hark! Is that a cannon's roar I hear?"

"Great," says the stage manager. "Just in time." And shoves the actor through the curtain.

As the actor lands on the stage: FLASH! BOOM!

"What the hell was that?"

Which reminds me of a true story.
The day before the off-book rehearsal — when everything is to be memorized and the scripts are no longer used on stage by the actors — I asked Matt Slaybaugh, the director: "Do any actors really know their lines at off-book?"

"Some do," he said. "Do you know what we call them?"


"The good ones."

Learn your lines.