Memory Tips From Actors Who Don’t Clown Around

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Even if you’re not an actor, you’ve probably wondered what it would be like to get up on stage and completely forget your lines.

Or maybe you’ve just asked yourself what that would feel like … To go completely blank in front of a crowd.

It does happen, even to the best. For example, Matthew Broderick once had to call for his lines many times during a play. In this case, it was due to multiple dialog changes shortly before the performance. But just imagine the pressure one tiny slip up must bring!

And think of how much energy it must take to hold all those lines in the mind, sometimes for months if it’s for a play. It must be mentally and physically draining.

Unless of course you’ve got top-notch memory techniques. Doing my research, I was quite surprised by the range of activities actors use. And yet not all actors use straight-up mnemonics, making each of these memory tips interesting in their own right.

1. Don’t Memorize Your Lines

Sounds weird, right? After all, Peter O’Toole famously said that he and most of his colleagues get paid to memorize lines. The acting they do for free.

But many actors forgo memorization, at least at first. Instead, they read their scripts again and again. Anthony Hopkins, for example, talks about reading his scripts several hundred times.

But if they’re not memorizing the lines, why all the repetition?

It’s because they’re looking for intentions. Motivations and the emotional experiences their characters go through. As we know from mnemonics, emotions are very memorable and build a lot of connections.

And if you think about it, the most memorable scenes from movies all feature hugely exaggerated reactions based on emotional states.

In sum, all of this repetitive reading builds associations at a microscopic level. The smallest detail in the dialog can make the lines much more memorable to the emotional being of the actor who must react from feeling just as much as from memory. And it’s the smallest twitch of a facial muscle that can make the difference between a blockbuster flop and an Oscar-winning movie.

2. Use Location and Movement

Acting takes place in time and space. It is an art of change, and as Plato and Aristotle pointed out about memory, change is always movement.

And just as actors link their lines to emotional states, they also link them to movement. Knowing where a character says something, in which emotional condition and in response to what context all provide powerful cues.

This cool technique resembles Memory Palace work in many ways. But instead of using a familiar home as a Memory Palace, the film set or theater stage becomes a specific-purpose Memory Palace designed to accomplish a specific task.

Both Mark Channon and Scott Gosnell have talked about different ways of making Memory Palaces like this on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast before. As an actor himself, Channon has used the technique just described. And Scott told us about going to an examination room before you take a test to install your imagery.

This “immersion” technique works extraordinarily well because you’ve got a real representation of your Memory Palace in front of you. This immediacy lets you focus on the memory triggering power of your associative-imagery with great immediacy. And if you’re an actor or want to perform well on an exam, you need immediacy. In fact, you need the target material to leap into your mind like mice on cheese in a world free from cats and barriers.

3. Focus on Emotions

We’ve already talked about emotions in the first part about mentally processing the lines of a play again and again. The idea here is that the more you read the lines, the more dimensions of the character in the context of their narrative world you’ll understand.

But the actor also needs to feel those emotions at a legitimate level. And theoretically, by making oneself feel the emotions in a genuine way, the lines should be more memorable.

And if you think about it, you’ve probably had more than one experience in your life where you could remember parts of an argument word  for word. Maybe you’ve experienced arguments so intense that you can still remember things you’ve heard and said. And it’s this power of supercharged emotions that actors use to help them remember their lines. They hunt for that same spike in feeling in real life that people use to win arguments and memorizers use to make information more memorable.

Those are the three main ways actors remember their lines and they can all add something to your practice as a memorizer. And you don’t have to go to your high school or college examination room to get results with real location projection.

Try using your home as a Memory Palace sometime. Take lyrics from a song or a poem and stand at or beside or on a station. Create associative-imagery for the first line and with eyes both open and closed, burn that imagery into place.

Do this with a couple of lines, physically moving from station to station. Then, looking back, see or reconstruct your associative-imagery using words and decode it. If you like, go back to the station itself and put some motion into your “act of recall.” If you’ve struggled with decoding associative-imagery before, this simple exercise in acting may be the breakthrough you need.

Other Ways Actors Have Memorized Their Lines

Since we’re here, let’s look at some other ways actors have “memorized” their lines. This part of the post is just for fun, so don’t try any of the following when the stakes are high like during an exam for school or professional certification. You could wind up failing your exam or even getting kicked out of school.

4. Don’t Memorize Anything At All

This tip for improving your memory is not going to help much, but it is a tribute to the talent of many film and television actors. They simply show up and have their lines fed to them, one at a time.

Remember when we talked about using the set of Deadwood a little while ago as a Memory Palace? Well, go ahead and use it to practice virtual Memory Palaces and recalling information, but rest assured of this. Although the actors on Deadwood certainly prepared by memorizing their lines, rarely did they deliver them as scripted.

Why?

Because the creator of the series, David Milch, changed the lines up to the last minute, including during the shooting of Deadwood. To deal with these changes, actors would assume their places and call “line” in order to be told by someone off-camera what to say. And then they would repeat the line, and their call for help would later be edited out of the footage during post-production.

Knowing this behind-the-scenes fact about Deadwood certainly has increased my appreciation for how well those actors managed to stay in character. How about you?

5. Scatter Your Notes Around The Set

It was pretty awesome having Marlon Brando play Superman’s dad back in the Richard Donner film, wasn’t it? But it seems that the much-adored thespian was either lazy or Super-forgetful because, in this bit of film history, he insisted on having his lines on pieces of paper scattered around the set.

The people who worked with him were not pleased by his lack of professionalism. Yet, when you watch the film, he certainly does a great job of playing the father of one of the greatest superheroes ever invented.

And keep in mind that reciting from a script does not equal bad writing. Cartoon narrators do it all the time and no one criticizes them for that.

Still, it’s kind of a weird feeling to think that Brando couldn’t be bothered to memorize his lines in this film. But I’m sure most fans will forget this fact and forgive him.  🙂

6. Use An App In Place Of An Assistant

There’s an app that looks interesting called Rehearser. It’s only available for Andriod, so I haven’t been able to assess it, but the idea is that you can import a script and it will feed you the lines that go before yours. These prompts train you to respond without needing an acting partner or a coach. Throw a dedicated Memory Palace strategy into the mix and you’re golden.

7. Let The Gods Of Acting Pump The Lines Invisibly Into Your Ear

Angela Lansbury will likely never be forgotten for her role as the star of Murder She Wrote. Yet, as age has taken its hold, and she’s boldly refused retirement (and apparently the Magnetic Memory Method), memorizing her lines has become increasingly difficult.

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Her solution when acting from the stage? She wears an invisible earpiece that lets someone offstage feed the lines to her when the going gets tough.

Now You May Be Wondering …

Is there a way for an actor who needs radio controlled prompting to make improvements, regardless of age or present mental condition?

Of course there are ways. Lots of them. I would probably begin with some basic training in the correct construction of Memory Palaces. People who fail to have success with them usually haven’t had exposure to the finer details, which is why I created the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass.

Following that, I would add a few simple memory drills. Memorizing a deck of cards would be one of them. Purely for strengthening visual association skills, it’s a great exercise. It’s also a memory exercise that paves the way for memorizing increasingly abstract words and phrases with greater speed and accuracy.

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But were I to coach an actor with memory issues, I would soon add a simple drill we’ve talked about before: Memorizing using dice.

Starting with just one die and a poem or longer speech from a play, I would have the actor roll and come up with a number. Whatever number comes up, that’s how many lines she or he will memorize.

For example, take one of Adriana’s speeches in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. If the actor rolled a one, then we would work on memorizing one line on one station. If the actor rolled a five, then we would go for five lines.

I would them send the actor home and let them roll that die a couple times a day for a week with the goal of having as many lines as possible memorized.

Then, when they show up for the next coaching session, we would roll again. Except this time, if they rolled a three, they would need to recite three lines starting from the third station. If they rolled a six, it would be six lines from the sixth station or six lines backwards if the actor had reached the end of the memorized material.

From that point onward, we would add more dice every week.

And you can use this memory tip for anything. If you’re working on a foreign language, roll the dice and memorize as many words as the number indicates. Then, use the dice to recall as many words as the dice indicate. Giving yourself a sort pattern like this is the mental equivalent of working out in a gym with skipping rope.

Just Do It

As I’ve hoped to show, actors use many different ways to memorize their lines, and we can take some tips from them to improve our memory abilities when using memory techniques.

So what are you going to do with this information? Let it sit like an unproduced play collecting dust on a shelf?

I hope not!

Get out there and put these ideas to use because taking action by staging a play in the gym of your mind is the only way to get results.

And these fun and games? They’ll make your memory Magnetic.

Further Resources

Magnetic Memory Method Podcast Episode on How to Increase Memory By Watching Movies And TV Series

Magnetic Memory Method Podcast Episode on using dice to memorize.

Superman info on IMDB. Check it out!

4 Responses to " Memory Tips From Actors Who Don’t Clown Around "

  1. Tor Refsland says:

    Hi Anthony!

    Great article. Many good tips here!

    I will use this blog post for future references 🙂

    Tor

  2. Great stuff, Anthony!
    As you know, I’m a professional actor and I’ve been working lines for years. Magnetic memory method has greatly helped me get through many auditions, plays, and films.

    1) Best tool for memorizing lines for iOS is ‘LineLearner”by Peter Allday of Allay apps. In fact, I made some comments on the app store and he added several of the features I requested. You record your lines, and the lines of the other characters, and then you can mute your own lines or set a gap so that the lines are said back after you’ve said them to correct them. I use this almost everyday as it allows me to ‘rehearse’ without other actors present. Very useful when you can’t hold or look at a script. I cannot recommend this app enough. It’s so useful for actors, and I imagine anyone who wants to memorize dialogue or long speeches and be able to test themselves through other than visual means from a script.

    2) Another element that can greatly affect memorization is what you’re ‘doing’ or your ‘action’ while your saying your line… not in the blocking or physical sense. For example, if I’m ‘defending’ myself, that’s an actable action, and it will help me remember lines because there are specific emotions associated with it. Interesting enough, if after memorizing, your change your action to something like ‘attacking’ the character your were defending yourself from, this can throw off your recall. So it’s best to rehearse with several different actions in mind on each pass through the scene, which only strengthens the lines and your flexibility to approach a scene from a different angle. After all, the director will often throw something new at you on set between takes, and you need to be flexible to do it right away and still remember your lines.

    3) I’m experimenting with a technique of visualizing all the background events of a script my character talks about. It’s really helpful because I imagine the meaning behind the lines and it actually builds the character’s life while filling the lines with personal meaning (much like you talk about above). I’m still not sure how to integrate location, other than the idea to set memories from the character in specific locations (like creating the location where an event he mentions took place). I’m still looking for that best way to use a memory palace for these events, as it doesn’t always seem right to put the events/topics/names/etc in memory palaces in the order they occur in the script.

    Thanks for this great podcast and for keeping me on my toes as well armed magnetic memory method user!
    Lincoln Hoppe

    • Thanks for these great thoughts, Lincoln!

      The app sounds great and it sounds like it has applications for language learning as well. For example, you could have a language learning tutor speak the lines of a dialogue, mute the ones you’re supposed to recite and practice short and long dialogues.

      About using Memory Palaces and order, I don’t see why you couldn’t place things out of order. Or rather, there are different forms of order. For example, depending on the character, you could have the defending lines you mentioned in one Memory Palace and the attacking lines in another. It’s definitely something worth exploring.

      Thanks again for the great comment. Going to check out this app now!

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