How do you memorize all those lines?

That’s typically the first question at any post-show actor chat.  We have a few stock answers, the simplest one being:  you just do.

You have to.   Committing words to memory is an essential part of making theater.  Nothing can grow until the words flow, and there is so much that must grow.  Relationships, intentions, reactions, physicality – you can’t pay proper attention to any of these if you’re struggling to remember your words.

Director and acting coach Leslie Reidel says the actor’s memorization must be “neuromuscular”, so complete that the brain and the facial muscles say the words without any apparent effort on the actor’s part.  This frees up the rest of the actor’s mind for the work at hand, which is, according to famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner, “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”  When my mind is elsewhere (struggling to remember a word), I can’t be in the here and now, and “living truthfully” is impossible.

I learn lines a variety of ways:  by writing them down, by drawing pictures to illustrate them (thus creating powerful images in my mind), by practicing them endlessly with friends or with a recording of the other actors’ lines (leaving space for me to speak mine).  I like to memorize as much as I can before rehearsals begin; other actors learn lines in tandem with the movement that develops in rehearsal. 

Joe working with his "Metamorphoses" script; he will play Hamlet at Georgia Shakespeare in the fall.

Joe working with his “Metamorphoses” script; he will play Hamlet at Georgia Shakespeare in the fall.

Whatever the method, memorization goes deeper than learning words.  You have to learn the thoughts that lead to the words, and that takes careful script analysis, playful experimentation, and a bit of psychological imagination.  Ultimately, using these tools, you know your way through the play on so many levels, the words come easily.

I’ve always admired Joe Knezevich’s process, which leads to strong, detailed characters who seem completely real.  I asked him to describe it, and his words are so good, I’ll leave you with them . . .

I try never to memorize a sequence of words and sentences by rote. My feeling is that, using the text as a road map, an actor constructs a series of immediate, medium, and long term needs, desires, goals, objectives (whatever you want to call them) along with an incredibly specific world of existing conditions and circumstances, so that when the play throws an event at you, or another character says something to you, and it’s time for your line…there isn’t anything else you could possibly say.


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