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The Working Actor

Short-Term Memory

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Short-Term Memory
Dear Michael:

I've had my agent send me in for a few co-star roles on network shows. I usually get the sides around 5 or 6 p.m., and the audition is usually the next day, around 11:30 a.m. or noon. It usually consists of between eight and 15 lines. Now, I've spoken to a few casting directors, and some are adamant about actors memorizing before going into the room. I've screwed up my last couple of auditions because I've let this information really freak me out.

How important is memorization of sides if they were given within 24 hours or less? If I could just glance down once or twice before I say my lines, I wouldn't have the fear of forgetting them at all! I can understand if I had the sides for a week, but less than 24 hours?

Am I shooting myself in the foot by occasionally glancing at my lines during an audition? Do casting people immediately dismiss you if you haven't fully memorized them? Just wondering what your thoughts are on this subject. Maybe you can ease my fear of not being completely off-book for an audition when I've had the sides for less than 24 hours.

—No Time for Lines, New York City

Dear No Time:

I'll tell you what never works well for auditions: anxiety.

And frankly, I'm pretty annoyed that a casting director who hasn't provided an actor with adequate preparation time would have the gall to be adamant about memorization. This kind of thing is typical of that less-experienced subsection of the casting community who don't have a clue about the acting process. Tossing an auditioning actor a hot potato like "Here are the sides for tomorrow; be off-book" creates extra stress, all but guaranteeing a less-than-best presentation of the actor's skills. I think it's a strange thing to insist on. After all, what position are they looking to fill, actor or memorizer?

Fortunately, my experience has been that memorization is rarely demanded. (Only once was I asked to be off-book for an audition, and with good reason: It was for a huge Broadway lead. I was provided with the materials weeks in advance, and in that instance, knowing the words made it easier, not harder.) So I don't know who these casting people you're encountering are, but if I were you, I'd graciously refuse to take on the pressure of their utterly unreasonable expectations. And I have to believe that however vehement they may be, if you're a good actor who's right for the part but who hasn't memorized the lines, they won't let that stop them from considering you—unless they're imbeciles, which is always possible.

I believe we actors need to take firmer hold of our own artistic authority and approach our work in the way that we know works best for us. If you need to look at the page so you can perform the scene without the distraction of wondering whether you'll remember the lines, then for heaven's sake, do it. If the casting director balks, be gracious, friendly, and firm: "I just got the scenes last night. I haven't had an opportunity to memorize them." Don't apologize. Don't shrink into a ball. Just state the facts, and do your work. I believe that generates more respect than allowing yourself to get freaked out or apologetic.

However—and get out your neck brace, because I'm about to make a sharp left—you really should memorize if at all possible, not because someone demands it and not out of anxiety to please, but because it will substantially enhance your work at the audition. It frees you to play the role and makes it easier to interact with the reader, allowing the casting director to see your face. I embrace the challenge of getting off-book, even in a short amount of time, because for one thing, I believe our brains have the capacity to do it. But more important, in studying those words again and again, poring over them, grooving them into my brain, and getting them solidly learned, I find I have such a better understanding of what the writer intended, who my character is, and what's going on in the scene.

So, now that I've guided you in two opposite directions at once (both empowering, I hope), I'm going to share my favorite memorization techniques (besides the obvious one: lots and lots of repetition), honed over years of hastily staged readings, last-minute rewrites, and understudying huge roles.

1) Write your lines out in longhand. When you're writing, you're moving through the lines more slowly, in a more concentrated way. It makes you really think about what you're saying and the exact word choices. By writing the words out, they become your words; you commit to them. Instead of just reading them, you're interacting with them, spelling them with your own hand. This also means you're looking at each line, then looking away from the script to write it on the new page. So you're already calling on your memory.

2) Record each line several times in a row, leaving pauses in between, so you can repeat them while listening to the playback. Break longer speeches into short, repeatable sections. After that, record the lines a bit faster, without the gaps, and see if you can say them along with yourself.

3) If you have the technology to play recordings on a repeating loop, play the lines at a very low volume while you sleep. Weird but true: They'll get into your subconscious that way.

4) Work with a friend. It's one of the best things you can do. It gets the script out of your hand and allows you to drill. Your friend doesn't need to be a coach or a teacher, just someone who can help you get those words down.

But whatever you do, never let an audition become a test—or even a demonstration—of your memorization skills. Always hold the script, even if you have the lines down cold. (If you don't hold the script, the casting director's attention might be focused on the fact that you're off-book rather than on your work.) And during the scene, look at the lines as needed, without hesitation or regret. Otherwise, you've stopped acting and started proving you can remember words. And that's not what you're there for.

By doing your work in the way you know produces the best results, you help casting directors by delivering what they really want: a poised, professional expert who knows what he's doing.

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