When I was a kid I had a photographic memory. I not only knew all the winners of the Epsom Derby, but their breeding, owners, jockeys and trainers. My parents’ favourite party trick was to throw a year out to me and see how fast I could reel off the facts about it. I never made a conscious effort to learn all those names. I was just fascinated about the Derby, and voraciously read up and daydreamed about all those horses.
I was the same with telephone numbers. I remembered them by the pattern they made on the telephone keypad. I was often a lead in the school plays, and I could remember those lines effortlessly after just a couple of rehearsals.
Now, not so much. I neither remember last years’ winner of the Epsom Derby, though I did manage to dredge up the 1953 winner (Pinza) for a crossword question recently, nor do I have the need to memorise phone numbers, as my phone nanny’s me with that one. And learning lines has become more of an effort, so I actually have to employ a few techniques to help me along.
It’s an old actor’ adage that their only job is to learn their lines and say them as if the words had just occurred to them. But how? Well first there’s the old tried and tested,
Read two to three lines out, then cover them with another piece of paper and say them back. When you’ve got it right three times, move on to the next two lines.
Look, this does work, even if it is a bit tedious. The trick for me is not to try and learn too much at once. Better to get a paragraph cemented in, then go do the washing up/admin etc, and test myself a few hours later. If it’s a big hunk of text, sometimes this is tricky. So I will count how many sentences there are in the paragraph. If there are three, I ‘learn’ the number 3 corresponds to that paragraph, and when I read the first line out aloud from the page, I press my thumb down on my thigh, or the table, then my first finger as I start the second line and so on. Then later on, when I am practising and I have a block, I press my finger down again and the line comes back to me.
Several actors have told me that they learn their lines in a neutral way so they can adapt to what a director wants them to put into the performance. I find rehearsing the lines in a quick monotone works once I know the poem and I’m just reminding myself before I go on stage, but it doesn’t help the lines stick in my head when I first learn them. If I connect to the emotion of the first line (or that I am feeling at that part of the show) and then learn the line, I only have to connect to the emotion and then the line arrives in my head.
I make sure I don’t learn the lines with the same emphasis each time. The first problem this creates is I can never be able to say then differently, however hard I try. Whilst learning, I say the lines fast, slow, happy, sad, because if I remember them all these different ways, I know they are cemented in.
If I have a long piece to learn which isn’t broken up either by having another actor say something or a change in action, I use this old memory trick. I think of a familiar route I walk often and I pick ten stages along it. For instance, leaving my front door, the left turn onto the road, the place I always cross, the strange tree I walk by, and I assign a line or two to each stage. Then I imagine myself walking along the route and saying the relevant piece of text at each stage. Obviously I get to each stage a lot quicker than if I was actually walking. The visual clue of each point on the walk helps anchor the text in my memory.
Once I think a piece of text is in my head, I repeat it while doing other things, and to other people. These include while I am washing up, driving (only when I know my route), keeping eye contact with myself in a mirror, to the dog, to my husband. I can think I know a piece, but as soon as I add in another factor it becomes more shaky, so practising with distraction helps prepare me for rehearsal.
Other common methods that I haven’t used so much include recording your lines and listening back to them as you fall asleep or whilst walking around, and writing them out longhand several times. Different ways work for different people, so experiment. At least one method will work for you.
When you are learning your own show, don’t make it a chore separate from the creative process, make it part of the creative process. When you continually fumble over a line or forget a chunk, that’s often a good clue that it needs to go, or be re-arranged. You can also deepen your relationship with the words, by really feeling the shape of the words in your mouth, hearing the sounds you make. It’s a way to fall in love with your script at a whole new level. And don’t worry if you learn it and then decide to cut or change a chunk. If the new way works better, my experience is that my memory is only too happy to forget the old version and embrace the new, because it feels right.
Tina Sederholm is a spoken word artist who has created and performed four solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and many other festivals and theatre spaces around the country. She helps other spoken word artists and theatre-makers create short and long pieces through workshops and one-to-one sessions. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org