Welcome to Part 2 in my series on Memory for Actors.
How to learn lines quickly and effectively.
In part 1 we looked at the argument for why it is so important to learn your lines. To recap this is because the act of remembering your lines draws on your brain's limited attention resources which, as an actor, are needed for many different activities in the scene. If you can learn your lines quickly, they can go into procedural memory and become like driving a car, something you don't even need to think about, which will free up your cognitive system to focus on more important things, like listening! But how do you go about learning your lines so you will remember them the best?
Here are my 6 tips and tricks for learning your lines:
1. The Parrot Method
This is your famous school-learning memorization technique where you would rattle off a bunch of facts that you had spent hours walking around your room repeating and repeating to yourself, hoping that through endless repetition the information would somehow cement itself into your brain. There is something to be said for this approach as actors such as the great Sir Anthony Hopkins use this as a method to learn his lines for a role. He reads a script between 150 to 200 times so he literally knows it back to front. Another suggestion with this method is to use a tennis ball and throw it up and down or to a friend whilst repeating your lines to yourself in as monotone a fashion as possible. This is good at imprinting the lines into your brain and not developing any pesky intonation patterns or 'planned acting' that you’ll get stuck in.
However, sometimes this just doesn't work for you.. Either because it is boring and monotonous or you still feel like the words slip through your mind like sand running through your fingers. In fact, our brains are not actually designed to absorb information rapidly in this way. So! Here are a few more psychologically-backed suggestions to help you.
2. Table Work
Table work refers to all the textual analysis that you do on a text. Calling on all your Stanislavski tools you want to take the time to break down the text into your units and objectives, figuring out your character, answering the seven big questions about the scene and making sure you understand exactly what is going on. The more you know about it the better! Psychologically, we remember stories and scenes better than abstract information (Newport, 2019), which is why a common memorization technique used by memory masters for memorising a set of cards is to create a mental picture of your house which you walk through and use as a base to memorise the card deck from. Breaking down your script and mapping out the story can give you a similar structure in which to root the memorisation of your lines. Which brings me to the next point...
The number of things we can memorize and recall in a short space of time is limited because our storage-system, Working Memory, is limited. However, research has revealed that the technique of chunking can vastly improve the amount of information that you can remember over the short term (Thalmann, Souza, & Oberauer, 2019)*. So you've been sent a 4-page script to learn for tomorrow, how do you do it? Chunking refers to grouping small units of information into a bigger group and naming it. This goes back to table work. When you can break up the text into its units then you are effectively chunking the text for yourself. One director I worked with got us to title each unit and then add something from each sense (what does it taste like, smell like, feel like, what do you see, what do you hear). What is important for your brain is that you have taken small bits of information and grouped together the pieces that are similar. This helps by reducing the load that your working memory takes on because instead of having to remember lots of small pieces of information, you now only have to remember the titles of chunks and recalling those chunks will set off the network of small units of information related to that chunk.
Often dialogue flows with an action and reaction. A character replies to something that the previous character said (obviously), but what I’m referring to are specific words that can act like ‘hooks’ onto which you can hang the next line of dialogue. Highlighting these and following the story of these will help you remember what you’re saying. They function a little like the chunks above in the way that what you're doing is marking out things that are associated with others and will trigger the information that is stored in your brain. This is based off the concept of 'associative access' (Levitin, 2014)* which means that you can connect to things stored in your memory through things that are related - words, images, smells etc. What you're doing is tapping into relational memory which is our ability to access memory through various cues*. As a memorisation technique this is called Linking or the Chain system. They’re like the keycards you would make for a speech with your key words to remind you what you’re saying next.
Where are you learning your lines? It’s well-established within psychological literature thanks to Godden and Baddeley, (1975)* that memory depends on where you learn something and where you recall it. Godden and Baddeley (1975) looked at a group of divers who learnt a series of words underwater and on land. They then had to recall the words either underwater or on land and in both cases recall was better in the same place as learning. Now as actors, we rarely have have the luxury of this, in fact most certainly not if you're working on a film or TV set but you can use this knowledge to make small differences to how you learn your lines. Will you be sitting or standing? Where do you move? Can you try to recreate the environment that you will be performing in as much as possible? Can you rehearse with your scene partner? What about light? Is it a dark scene or a bright scene? Learn your lines in as similar a location as to that which you’ll be delivering them to give yourself an easier job of recalling them.
Your ability to store information is not locked at a certain level. With practice you can improve your memory as these researchers found. Not only this but there are health benefits to exercising your memory skills. Dame Judi Dench is famous for memorising a poem or several lines of verse a day and there is research to support the idea that doing this will prevent the development of dementia.
This will be a topic for another post - the benefit of regular memory practise!
So the next time you have to learn your lines do your table work to map out your mental house of the scene, identify the chunks, find your hooks in each line, set up your environment to emulate your recall environment as much as possible, parrot learn your lines, and finally, practise learning lines a little everyday so when that big project does come around your memory muscle will be fit and ready.
Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent Memory in Two Natural Environments: On Land and Underwater, British Journal of Psychology, 66(3), 325-331, doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1975.tb01468.x
Levitin, D. (2014). The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Penguin Books.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Piatkus, Great Britain.
Thalmann, Mirko; Souza, Alessandra S; Oberauer, Klaus (2019). How does chunking help working memory? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 45(1):37-55. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000578