There are, of course, many tricks and techniques, and most experienced actors have found one or two approaches that work best for their finicky brains. Repetition by rote is the most common, if you can find a quiet space to repeat the lines without driving family members crazy. A lot of actors will record their own voices reciting their lines, and then play the tape back to themselves in the car or on the bus. Thanks to the invention of headphones, this trick is less likely to annoy those within earshot; but heaven help the actor to misspeaks one of his lines onto the tape, because there’s no way he’ll be able to correct himself after he’s listened to the wrong version 200 times.
Another time-honoured tradition, and one which relies less upon modern technology, is writing the lines out longhand. This technique is slower, and it does not focus upon the sound of the lines per se; but it does help an actor to increase her comprehension of the words she’s soon to speak. Copying out one’s own lines (instead of writing out the entire play) allows an actor to create the modern equivalent of a Shakespearean “prompt-book”—which is not only easier to lug around than a full-sized script, but makes for a great souvenir once the show has closed.
Whenever I’ve had to memorize lines, I employ a technique which uses sleep cycles to transfer items in my short-term memory into my long-term memory. It sounds scientific, but it’s really very simple. If I can read quickly through five or six of my lines each night right before I go to sleep, then I’ll usually discover that I have those lines memorized the next morning. The only drawback of this method is that you end up dreaming about the play—but for a lot of actors, that’s already a given.
However, one of the oldest methods of memorization is even more scientifically sound. I’m talking about The Art of Memory, a technique employed over 2000 years ago by Ancient Greek and Roman orators who were preparing to recite lengthy speeches on the subjects of politics or law. This method sounds a bit complex at first, but once you’ve got a personal system worked out, it ends up being a remarkably efficient way to commit large passages to memory.
The Art of Memory uses mental architecture combined with visual metaphors to create a symbolic landscape with the keys to all your lines laid out in order. First, you choose a real-life environment with which you are extremely familiar; you might select your house, or the school you spent a lot of time in as a child. Next, you imagine yourself moving through the environment in a fixed path. In each room or area, you pause just long enough to remember a line from your speech.
The familiarity of the space helps you to recall the order of the lines; but what about the content? For each line, you need to create a visual image which corresponds to, or evokes, part of the content. For example, here’s a famous speech from Hamlet:
To be or not to be; that is the question;
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.
The images don’t have to be literal; they could be metaphors or puns, or anything that prompts you to remember the content of the line. For the first line of Hamlet’s speech, I might picture a man holding two bees in his hand, and scratching his head, as if pondering a question. When I turn to the second line, I might envision a crying (suffering) brain (mind) with a crown (noble) on top. The third line might conjure up an image of Mr. Burns (outrageous fortune) wearing a sling and clutching an arrow. And so on.
It sounds crazy, I know. But there are two subtle psychological tricks at work. First, the fact that you, the actor, are responsible for creating each visual metaphor makes it a snap for you to decipher them. An outsider looking at my rebus puzzles would have a hard time translating them; but since I made them myself, I have a built-in decoder.
The second part is where the real whiz-bang science comes in. According to psychologist Allan Paivio, the process of remembering involves two separate mental systems: the imagery system and the verbal system. In other words, we remember words and images with different parts of our brains. But the two systems can work together, searching simultaneously through two filing systems of memory, working twice as fast and doubling the chance of finding something that will stimulate the right thought.
I must confess, I haven’t run into a lot of actors who use this sort of system on a regular basis; but since I’ve begun to brag about my own successes in using the Art of Memory, a number of my actor friends have tried it and found that it not only makes the memorization process more reliable, but even makes it a bit more fun. If nothing else, it certainly equips you with an interesting answer for the next time someone asks, “How do you remember all those lines?”