When it comes to memorization, some actors find it very freeing to get “off book” as quickly as possible. Others keep the script in their hands as long as they can throughout the rehearsal process. Eventually, every actor needs to memorize, but what are the strategies to do it? Most actors think they can just memorize by rote and the rest will follow.
But the danger in rote memorization is comprehension. I used to teach kindergarten and listening to the children sing the national anthem was quite hysterical! They would substitute “made up words” for the actual ones and carry on. They probably didn’t even know they were doing it! As cute as they were, they had no idea what they were singing.
Actors think if they memorize by rote then the story will follow. In fact, it’s so much more about the other characters in the scene and how you feel about what they are saying and doing to you. It’s about the story between you and the other characters in the scene. Instead of focusing on rote memorization, challenge your brain to focus on the story that the writer is telling.
There’s an old cliché where an actor asks: “What’s my motivation?” It’s a cliché for a reason. It is a necessary question that every actor, no matter how young, must answer. Why does my character say that? Is he angry, frustrated, happy, giddy? What makes him feel that way? Why did she answer that way? Why does she start every sentence with “why?” A script is like a road map with clues along the way. If you pay attention, it will give you the answers you need. Reading a scene for the story allows your imagination to run wild and have fun. You get to be taken to a place where you may feel the exact same way the character feels in the scene. And this can feel really great!
Once this happens, you’ll begin to feel a sense of freedom to live in the little moments, to see what the character sees, to smell what the character smells, to feel how the character feels.
You’ll start to remember your lines because you understand the story between the characters and you’ll know how you feel about what’s being said or done to you. Breaking down the lines and understanding them will go a long way toward your ability to memorize and the quality of your performance.
So remember, start with the story first, and then your lines will feel much more connected and you’ll be able to get off book faster with much more feeling than if you just memorized by rote.