How to Memorize Faster With Less Effort

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Actors often treat memorization as one of the more onerous parts of the business, and for good reason: It can be a real bitch. If the acting industry is like Disneyland, memorization can be viewed as all the long lines of people you have to endure before you get to ride Space Mountain.

Here’s a secret: Memorization is not about remembering the words. The way you memorize the script can directly impact your performance. A good process of memorization allows you to absorb the words so that you don’t hesitate or have to think about what comes next—similar to how you don’t have to think when you’re reciting the alphabet. You know what letter comes after L. You don’t even need a split second to check with your brain cells on that one.

Furthermore, you don’t have a pre-selected emotional reaction or line delivery when you recite the alphabet. I know actors who have tried and tested methods of memorization, but they get stuck on delivering a certain part. They start to memorize their lines in terms of a pre-determined performance, and frankly that’s rookie-style. This can create rote delivery and an overall less malleable actor.

Your lines need to be down cold and flow unfettered, still allowing you to respond organically and freely to the very real, yet imagined circumstances of the script.

Here’s how I teach my clients to use memorization as a launch pad to help them create their strongest, most nuanced, and responsive performances ever.

1. Find a quiet place. Read all dialogue out loud—your lines and your partner’s, too. You do not want to act out or emotionalize the text as you’re reading it. Read the lines in neutral, seeing what you’re saying as you’re saying it. Read your individual sides or the entire script all the way through.

Those of you who have been fortunate enough to enjoy an extended run of a play know that by the 10th, 20th, or 60th performance, realizations emerge within the text, enriching your performance. The same is true here.

2. When you're finished reading the piece out loud, draw a small line somewhere on your script to delineate that you have read the entire piece all the way through once. Read the piece out loud in the same way once more. After you have done so, draw a line to cross the original line that you drew. It will look like a plus sign. This signifies that you have read the entire piece out loud, with full awareness, two times. Read it aloud a third and fourth time making horizontal bisecting lines to mark those reads. After the fifth reading, draw a circle around the bisecting lines to create your first pinwheel (see diagram to the left).

The goal is to get as many pinwheels as possible every day until the piece is memorized cold. Like the stars on one of Van Gogh’s canvases, these pinwheels assist by giving you a visual sign of the work you’re doing and the steady progress you’re making. Memorization is not a boring step you need in order to get to the real craft of acting. Memorizing properly is a crucial component of the craft; your words will automatically start to shape and create your reality when you adopt them as your own. making horizontal bisecting lines to mark those reads. After the fifth reading, draw a circle around the bisecting lines to create your first pinwheel (see diagram below).

3. A simple ball toss exercise is an undeniable way to determine if all the lines are memorized cold and if you can recite them under pressure.

With a partner or on your own, take a tennis ball or even a piece of fruit and throw it back and forth with your partner (or up and down if you’re working alone) while keeping the ball in control. So you don’t get stuck in a rhythm, start to move around the room in a random pattern. When you get into a good throwing groove, rapidly speak the text in neutral so you’re not “acting” it. If at any point your hand starts to hold onto the ball (unable to toss it to your partner), mark your script accordingly because those lines are not cold.

I like this exercise because it helps to create a pressurized environment that can at times mimic the pressure inherent in the audition room.

You cannot be searching for your next line while also delivering a great performance. Solid memorization allows you to seamlessly tune your heartbeat to the character’s heartbeat and create Oscar-level acting.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Joseph Pearlman
Joseph Pearlman is a celebrity and on-set acting coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients such as Zooey Deschanel, Skylar Grey, Michael Welch, and Julian Sands, and he also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies. Pearlman Acting Academy was voted the best acting studio in Los Angeles by the Backstage Readers’ Choice Awards.
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