In one of my favorite clips, actor Sir Ian McKellen explains to Ricky Gervais during an appearance on the show “Extras” what acting is, saying, “There will be no scripts on the night [of the play].”
While McKellen’s philosophy was somewhat satirical, it’s one that I explain to my students all the time. No matter how good a reader a child is, it’s only when they commit their lines to memory that their piece becomes believable. That said, children can often feel overwhelmed at having to memorize a monologue for an audition or performance. Here are some tips to alleviate the stress of memorization and make the process smooth and seamless.
1. Repetition is key.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. When children read their lines out loud over and over, eventually the words become second nature. This can be done with a parent or sibling reading with them and cueing them on their lines. They can also do this alone if they’re self-disciplined. Just be sure to remind them to only memorize the words, not the cadence or inflection they read them with. An actor needs to discover something new each time they read the lines and this can only be done if they don’t approach the monologue having predetermined the way they say the lines.
2. Break lines down into smaller pieces.
When I’m cycling up a monstrous hill, sometimes I need to take it in smaller increments. The same is true with memorization! Having a child tackle one long speech or even a few paragraphs in one sitting is counterproductive. It makes the task seem more daunting than it has to be and it can lead to frustration and disappointment. Break it down into smaller increments, either sectioning off a specific number of lines or an emotional beat. Then, use repetition on that section until the child can comfortably recite it. Eventually, they’ll be able to put the sections together.
3. Learn the lines by rote.
In my classes I often have my students rewrite their monologues by hand without any punctuation or stage directions. This is because markings other than words on a script can often lead a child to believe that they have to perform the piece adhering to the physical and emotional intent of the writer: an exclamation point means they need to be excited while “moved to tears” means they need to cry. This can often lead a child to illustrate the words instead of being real and authentic. It’s completely OK for a child to interpret a text in their own unique way! One of the great acting teachers, Sanford Meisner, talks about the “canoe on the river,” where the river is the authentic life and the canoe is the text which must ride freely on it. So, be sure your child isn’t associating any meaning or emotions with the words they’re memorizing. This will keep them from locking themselves into one particular way of delivering the lines and allow them to be authentic and free when acting.
4. Work on lines before going to sleep.
Studies have shown that learning lines right before bed can have a big impact on recall. Make sure working on memorization is one of the last things your child does before they hit the hay. Then, have them review again in the morning to help lock the script into memory.
Memorization doesn’t need to be a struggle for young actors. Given enough time and effort, it can even be enjoyable. But remember, memorization is only one important part of learning a script. Be sure to teach your child to think about their character and motivation, and encourage them to read the entire script to know what’s happening. When a child goes beyond the words they’re reading and analyzes their motivations, memorization will come more readily as they’ll be able to anticipate what comes next.
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