The Craft: Memorizing Lines for Soaps

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When you're acting in a soap opera, the task of memorizing lines is paramount, and the circumstances are challenging. You may be shooting multiple scenes per day. You'll "block and shoot" — that is, you'll dry-block the scene with the cameramen, have maybe one additional rehearsal, then shoot with three or four cameras, usually with no more than two takes. You probably received a week's worth of scripts in advance. Some of the dialogue may be confusingly similar from day to day (in order to clue in viewers who've missed a day or two of story line). You're unlikely to have time on the set to memorize (in film you're a long-distance runner; in soaps it's a 100-yard dash, according to one actor), though a dialogue coach or teleprompter might be present. In other words, you need to show up fully prepared. But even then, you might get anywhere from 10 to 30 pages of last-minute changes and additions.

Seamus Dever, whose character was recently killed off after about 50 episodes of General Hospital, realized early on that he needed to devise a memorizing method, because his wife was getting annoyed at continually having to hold book for him. So first he'd read the scene, then he'd record the other characters' lines on his iPod; it was like rehearsing with himself, he says. But now he takes a more organic approach to memorization, which he learned through working on scenes with Al Pacino at the Actors Studio, where Dever is a member: They'd read through the script over and over, and by the third or fourth time, he'd realize he'd memorized huge sections. "Your brain picks things up naturally," he says. Now, when he memorizes lines for plays, he hardly needs to use his iPod; his brain is all tuned up from having worked on soaps and from his more natural approach to memorizing.

Steve Carlson, an actor for 38 years, used to be able to read a soap script about three times and have 90 percent of it down, as well as the other characters' lines, without even trying. He got good at it over the course of three years on The Young and the Restless and four on General Hospital. "You can't get hung up on how many pages you have to memorize, like 30 today, 45 tomorrow," he advises. "What's really important is to get the point of what's being said, not the words. If someone says, 'How are you?,' you don't have to look at the script to say, 'Fine. How are you?' It's a dialogue, a back-and-forth conversation, a series of little cues. When you think of it that way, a series of cues, it makes it a lot easier."

For Carlson, soliloquies and "page-long diatribes" were more difficult. For those, he'd look for internal cues to take him from thought process to thought process. "The main thing is understanding what the writer is saying, what your character is doing and feeling, and most of the time you can just follow the conversation," he says. "Trying to memorize words is tough." His lines would get plugged into his short-term memory, and the minute the scene was taped they'd evaporate — presumably clearing space in his brain for the next scene. He also found that after working as a soap regular for years when he was young and then being away from it awhile, memorization was harder when he returned in his late 30s (as a recurring character on The Bold and the Beautiful), working only two or three days at a time, interspersed with long hiatuses. "The brain really is a muscle," he says. "If you don't use it, you lose it — quick."

Soap Dish

Going on her fourth year on Days of Our Lives, Rachel Melvin has solidified her memorization techniques. She works about three days a week, gets her scripts a week in advance, but generally doesn't have time to look at each one until the night before. Then she reads it once or twice, runs through it by paraphrasing it ("in case of emergency," she says), then breaks it down — looking for intention, point of view, what her character is feeling. Finally, to commit it to memory, she puts a "cue box" around some of the lines of the character speaking before she does and uses those prompts to read through each scene three or four times. The cue box isn't necessarily the other character's last line; it's whatever triggers her character's response. "It used to take me hours and hours," she says. "But I'm shooting three episodes tomorrow, and I started working on it last night and a little bit this morning. It took me maybe an hour to memorize all three episodes." Each episode was 15 to 20 pages.

When Melvin's castmate Darin Brooks started on the show three years ago, he found it hard to do things like shoot six episodes in five days. The worst day of his life was when he shot four episodes in one day, 60 to 80 pages of dialogue: "Grueling!" he says. Brooks does physical activities while memorizing, such as washing the dishes at home or throwing a tennis ball against the dressing room wall. That helps him memorize and also enables him to do things like pour coffee during the take without worrying about his lines. His method is to do script analysis and memorization a night or two before the shoot (although he takes a quick look at the script a week in advance), then arrive an hour early on the taping day and run lines with the on-set dialogue coach. He also keeps his skills up by taking regular classes. It all comes easier now, he says; he needs maybe two or three run-throughs to memorize.

For Thaao Penghlis, a longtime soap actor (General Hospital, Santa Barbara, currently Days of Our Lives), his memorization skills have not faltered with age — a common concern for many older actors. (Carlson recalls an 80-something castmate using cue cards, "a skill in itself," he says, "to do it without making it obvious to the audience.") But in the beginning, says Penghlis, it was quite intimidating. He'd have to go over the script four times before he learned it. Now it's quicker, which he attributes in part to improving his memory muscle by doing monologues in Milton Katselas' L.A. classes, where he was Katselas' assistant for 10 years. "I find most of the time when you can't" remember lines, he says, "it's because there's a word or a phrase you don't understand."

Penghlis' method is to break down the arc of the scene and assign a representative word or phrase — for example, terrorize — to each section of the arc. This keeps him focused on the essence of the section and thus on the gist of his lines. If he finds a phrase too difficult to say, he might cut some words. But first he calls the director the day before to discuss it. Sometimes the director agrees, sometimes not. And sometimes he's given cuts on the spot that alter the meaning of his lines. Upsetting as that is for actors, he says, "you have to be open and available for change. When you become rigid, that's when things become problematic." He adds, "You have to find some way of enjoying the process." By the third time he's read the scene, he's getting excited about the material. By the fourth, he's seeing the scene's various colors and making some choices.

The bottom line, says Dever, is that on soaps, preparation is the most important thing you do, and it's not just about memorizing: "You better come prepared with ideas too. If you don't feel like what you did is perfect, they'll move on anyway — it doesn't matter what you think."