As an actor, your logical instinct might be to memorize a piece of text in chunks e.g. if the line is “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” you are memorizing it as “The quick brown. The quick brown fox jumped. The quick brown fox jumped over the. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”
There is no specific reason behind chunking your text into bite size pieces. The way you memorize becomes mechanical and almost robotic. There is a high chance you are also voicing your words in the same you memorized them, in bite sized mechanical, robotic chunks. Whilst that may seem like the most efficient way of memorizing, in reality it is destructive to your actual performance. What often happens is the mechanical way in which you approached the lines translates into a mechanical manner of delivering the lines in rehearsal or in the performance. Because there is no thought or meaning behind it, you are simply making empty, meaningless sounds that are in the form of words. The hollow nature of memorizing means your performance is hollow.
Is this a wrong approach to memorizing? Absolutely not. Sometimes you may have to do so because of a time crunch. Are there better ways of memorizing? Definitely. Wherever possible, find the time to put some thought behind what you are saying.
How to Escape the Trap…(if you have the time to prepare)
1) Go through your lines or text and find where the logical thoughts and ideas are in it. A thought/idea could be 1 line, a few lines or a whole paragraph. Within a line or a piece of text you could be communicating several different thoughts and ideas. There is no right and wrong way of identifying the thoughts/ideas so long as it makes sense to you.
2) Paraphrase each thought or idea. You can do so line by line or whole thoughts, provided you paraphrase one thought and idea at a time and you are not combining them. Write down what each thought/idea means in your own words. Write down what you think your character is actually saying. Depending on the context, even a line like “I love you” can be seen as a threat or something other than what it appears to be.
3) As you write down what each thought means, also write how you specifically relate to these lines in your personal life. E.g. the text is about grief and loss and you have a line that could be about the death of a loved one but you relate more to the time your pet dog ran away. Go ahead, use that. There is no need to be literal with the line or to make it seem right to other people. These notes are for you and no one else. If it feels right to you, it is.
3A) As you break your script into different thoughts/ideas, attach images to them. e.g. if the line is “To be or not to be”, you could see a generic image from a TV show or film of someone maybe wanting to fight for their life and another image of someone wanting to die. You could also create an image of two bees that are alive and two bees that are dead. Already creating images and attaching them to the lines makes them more sensorial and easier to memorize. The more sensorial the images the easier it is to memorize. If you feel up to the challenge, the more personal and high definition the images you attach to the lines, even better still e.g. to you the line conjures up a very personal image of a time you really felt alive and your heart sang during an adrenaline-pumping moment e.g. skydiving and then another image of a near-death experience of a time you almost drowned.
4) Now that you understand the text and what is happening underneath the text aka the subtext, the intention, the images, go back to the beginning of each thought and ask yourself why you’re saying each line.
– What is your intellectual action? E.g. I want to console, I want to cheer up etc.
– How do you physically bring that line to life? E.g. I will console by offering a shoulder to cry on. I will cheer up by offering a flower to the person grieving. Find a good reason to speak and embody each thought/idea the way it was written.
Once you really understand why your character is speaking, the words will come naturally. Also, in the process of doing this, you are engaging your body and your mind; you are using kinesthetic learning by writing, visual by seeing the image of the different physical choices in your head or even the visual of your own notes and auditory as you practice memorizing it now according to the thoughts and ideas. This organic approach to memorizing is more in alignment with how we think and talk. As you get used to this style of memorizing more organically, your words are ‘fuller’ when spoken and your performances are richer because you’ve made specific choices.
“The words come only after seeing. That’s why it never helps to study the words or to memorize. You risk killing the ideas and the objects you’re dealing with.” – Stella Adler –