Picture If You Will

Is it getting harder for you to memorize lines? You'd think that the more you practice a technique, the easier it becomes. But for most of us, as we age, our memories deteriorate. Memorization—once the least of our problems when approaching a new role—is increasingly a challenge, even for those of us who always considered ourselves quick studies.

There are many tricks and methods for prodding a recalcitrant memory. Here's one taught in Los Angeles by actress Vicki Mizel. It involves substituting visual images for key words in your script, then mentally linking up the images—in fact, activating them in your mind's eye—in proper sequence. With a lot of practice, the method apparently works. Mizel has been teaching it for years (to Alzheimer's patients and others, as well as to actors), and I talked to a few actors who have had success with it and say it's also lots of fun.

Let's take a specific short monologue, the servant Luka's speech from the beginning of The Brute, a one-act play by Anton Chekhov. The lines are, "It's not right, ma'am, you're killing yourself. The cook has gone off with the maid to pick berries. The cat is having a high old time in the yard catching birds. Every living thing is happy, but you stay moping here in the house like it was a convent, taking no pleasure in nothing. I mean it, ma'am, it must be a full year since you set foot out of doors."

Step 1. For each line or section of a line, choose a key word or phrase. I chose "not right" for the first half of the first line, "killing yourself" for the second half.

Step 2. Then choose a concrete visual image for both key words. Anything will do if it works for you, although the closer you can stick to the script's meaning, the better. I chose an image of myself with my sweater on inside out ("not right"), followed by a woman stabbing herself with a knife ("killing yourself"). Mizel said it's important to start off with an image of yourself or the character, then dispense with that human image and proceed.

Step 3. In your mind's eye, place the first image (an inverted sweater) on the left, and place the second image (suicidal woman) on the right.

Step 4. Then link up the two images so that the image on the left is doing something physically interactive with the image on the right. Choose an active verb with an "ing" ending, such as squeezing, hugging, cuddling, eating. Avoid non-active verbs like seeing, hearing, watching. Remember, it doesn't have to make sense, but if you can choose a verb that's close to the action described in the text, so much the better. I imagined the sweater "tugging" the knife from the suicidal woman's hand. Goofy, seemingly irrelevant, but hard to forget.

See where this process is going? Images are easier to remember than individual words; active images are easier to remember than static ones, and it's natural to remember images from left to right because that's the way we read in English. Also, said Mizel, small things tend to remind you of the large.

Fruit Loops

You can continue with Luka's monologue yourself, by writing down a key word for each group of words, drawing a symbol for your key word, then activating and linking up those images in your mind's eye. For example, I chose an apron for the "cook," a frilly cap for the "maid," and a blackberry bush for "berries." For the first pair of images, the apron's sash might be "slapping" the frilly cap. For the second pair, the cap might be "impaling" itself upon the blackberry brambles.

It's important to see the visual images in as much detail as possible, to concentrate on only two images at a time in order to keep the sequence straight (the image on the left disappears, the image on the right moves to the left, a new image appears on the right), and to keep your eyes open while visualizing. Mizel's instructional tape suggested imagining you're looking through the lens of a camera or a telescope. The more of your senses you can involve, the better for your memory retention—and the better for your acting in general, of course. If you're visualizing an orange, smell it and taste it.

What about words in the script that are less tangible than "cook" or "maid"? For those, you need the sounds-like method. Say you need to remember the word "tangible." Well, turn "tangible" into "tangerine," a concrete thing that you can also smell and taste and touch.

Once you've visualized your images and the active sequential associations for them, it's time to test your recall. Mizel suggested that you jog your memory by asking it questions. So, going back to our Luka speech, we'd start out by asking, "What is the person on the left doing?" The answer is, she's got her sweater on backwards, which means something is wrong ("It's not right, ma'am") and she's tugging at the knife of a woman who's stabbing herself ("you're killing yourself").

In the beginning, it's important to follow the word-symbol exercise, cautioned Mizel: key word/phrase; symbol; action verb; link them up. Once you're adept at the technique, you can take short cuts; Mizel draws a little picture above words in her script, then writes down an action in the margin.

Mizel noted that you should not expect this method to work instantly. It takes lots of practice and, in the beginning, as much time as rote memorization. But the more you use your visual ability, the more powerful it becomes, and images start flowing in. Not only do these images stay locked in your long-term memory for easy recall, but the work of developing them strengthens your actorly skills, including sense memory, imagination, and general creativity.

Mizel suggested that during the first week of learning this method, you should make a list of seven to 10 items and memorize them every day. During the next week, practice the sounds-like method. Then, finally, proceed to work on a script.

Play the Thing

"Most of the time we can't learn lines because it's not interesting to us," said Diane Salinger, an actress who runs the Diane Salinger Acting Studio in Los Angeles and took Mizel's class a year ago. "And there are certain scripts," she added, "that are not well written and not interesting to the mind, and that's when you have the most trouble. So when you can actually spark real interest and make it creative, then the mind is interested."

She chooses cartoon-like images and has fun animating them as she links them. I asked both her and Mizel if working so hard to develop these images during the memorization process can interfere when you're actually acting. "By the time you're onstage, you know this stuff so well that a sunflower, say, will just be a fleeting image, and you'll be in the scene," Mizel assured me.

"The images can actually help your acting," pointed out Salinger, who encourages her students to choose images related to their objective. In any case, they won't hurt. Just as in real life you're seeing a variety of images when you're talking to someone—the party they're describing, the sandwich you're going to eat soon, the pimple on their nose, a fly buzzing around, the broccoli that might be stuck between your teeth—so those fleeting images that you may retain from your memorization process shouldn't interfere with what's happening onstage or on camera.

Professional opera singer-turned-actor Teryl Warren finds that the sequencing aspect of Mizel's memorization method is especially helpful when faced with scripts that lack logical transitions. Making transitions believable is the actor's job, but it's especially hard to memorize a script that jumps around. Said Warren, with this method, "You can always go from the previous thought to the next thought" by visualizing those linked actions. He's been using the method for only three months but says that for him it's faster than rote memorization, although it does take time to come up with the images. He said he's latched onto certain images that he re-uses. For example, to remember the word "everything," he visualizes the hand of Thing from The Addams Family, and imagines the hand gathering up Eveready batteries. Sounds convoluted, but it's fun, and Warren said it works.

For German-born actor Marcus Jung, the images help him to be in what he calls the more creative side of his mind. Previously he'd always found himself mired in memorizing instead of working on the acting. Now he feels self-confident enough to work on the acting first and the memorization later, which he finds highly preferable.

"If you have a fear of learning lines, do something about it before you need to, so you have a technique down already," advised Salinger. "Now is a great time, before pilot season."

Is it necessary to take a class to learn this approach? Jung, who took Mizel's class at the Learning Annex, thinks it would be just as hard to learn this method from a tape as to learn how to act from a tape. Warren found that one tutorial did the trick. "You basically teach this to yourself," he said. "No one can do the images for you. But you do need self-discipline."

Vicki Mizel offers classes, CDs, and tapes. Contact her at (213) 963-1275, brainsproutsmemory.com, or vmizel@aol.com. BSW