The Playgoer: Ok, so how DO you memorize all those lines?

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Ok, so how DO you memorize all those lines?

Yes, it's the question we all hate. The prototypical theatre-layman's question. And it is indeed one of the great fallacies that such memorization skills are all that separates a pro from some crack-up at parties. is pretty amazing when you come to think of it. And no small feat indeed for actors who take on huge solo shows, or entire 90-minute monologues. When I saw the latest Connor McPherson play (Port Authority) which has three men delivering intertwining monologues, I did wonder at the skill and practice required not just to know the lines, but your cues! Especially when they're twenty minutes apart. I was falling asleep in the audience (not McPherson's most thrilling play) so imagine what it's like onstage for the 30th or so performance.

So while it is hardly sufficient it is certainly a necessary part of the actor's toolkit. Even though even the best of them have had notorious trouble with it. (Olivier famously "went up" a lot toward the end.) And it's interesting to ask: why? Is it just a visual requirement of "realism"? Perhaps in this age of the staged reading, audiences will come to expect it less.

What prompts these heretical thoughts is a wonderful photo from today's Times:

That's Norbert Leo Butz in his first night in Speed-the-Plow with script in hand. (Ok, on-couch in this moment.) You may recall he's been whisked in to replace Super Mercury Man Jeremy Piven who abruptly left due to a rare case of sushi-overdose.

It's really, really tough for an actor to go out on stage like this. You think going out off-book is vulnerable already! But this, especially when your cast mates are long off book, must feel very exposing. But I must say I admire Butz' humility in letting his process show, if you will. (He was off book in Act I, I should note. And by now probably the whole thing.) Yes, sometimes we've seen actors go out like this who just clearly don't know what they're doing. But everyone in the NY theatre knows what a consummate pro Butz is.

And so I found his description in the Times of what it's like to learn an intricate Mamet script in one week (a script in which he has the biggest part, mind you, and is almost never off stage) compelling in getting right at the anxiety at the heart of the stage actor's craft.

These days Mr. Butz cannot pause to contemplate anything that is not “Speed-the-Plow.” When he is not performing the play, a David Mamet satire about two Hollywood producers and the office temp who upends their lives, he is rehearsing it with his co-stars, Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss, or he is reading the script with his wife and two young daughters. When he is getting a haircut or a massage or going to sleep, he is listening on an iPod to a recording of the play he made with Ms. Moss and Mr. Esparza.
Well aside from how much that IPod recording could get on EBay, this brought another question to my mind. And perhaps it's an unusually nuts & bolts one for this blog. But what is the best method to learn lines.

Care to share, actors? Does recording yourself really help? Do you go off into a secret lair or do you need the rehearsal process?

When I did plays in school, for instance, I found the best thing for monologues--after first basically getting at least the outline of it--was to force some really loyal friend to sit with the script and make you keep going back to the beginning until you got it right. (The important part was not looking at the script yourself that point but making yourself come up with mnemonics.)

Butz's experience, btw, reminds us how much a luxury even the paltry 3-4 week rehearsal process can be. (And why it's so important that's been fought for as a standard over the years. Producers would love a shorter process, believe me.) Once was the day in "rep"--as is true even today in road companies and various "semi-pro" companies--a week is it. Learn the lines on your own and come in off book on day one.

In fact, some directors still prefer and expect that. What do you think of that? Do you insist on being on-book through rehearsals in order to learn them? Or is it better to be freed up and off-book from the start?

And finally--how often do you get asked "How do you memorize all those lines?"


Anonymous said...

Regarding the "luxury" of the 3-4 week rehearsal process, I have to concur with one of Butz's other quotes in the article:

“I hate sitting around a table and talking about what a play might mean,” he said, speaking from his newly inherited dressing room at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. “I’m the person who’s always like, ‘Can we get up on our feet and just do it?’ ”

While I'm sure producers would like to speed up the process, I think a few of us actors would too. I look forward to a long rehearsal process only for the money. Once we open, the schedule and degree of freedom are much better- but you can also see your last paycheck coming unless it's an open run.

The ideal rehearsal period is about two weeks, if you ask me. Within that time you usually have an idea of whether this thing has a shot or will be a dog. Long rehearsal periods with copious amounts of 4th grade level table work get to be very frustrating.

Mark Fossen said...

I do prefer to be on-book at the start of rehearsals. The off-book process always involves looking for the lines, and I'd prefer to be able to focus on other things in the initial stages, and work lines in the refining stage. It also helps immensely to be blocked, so that the muscle memory all works together.

Regarding memorizing techniques, I have become addicted to my iPod. I record all my cue lines with appropriate pauses, and use that for drilling lines as I commute. It gets me off the page a lot quicker, and really helps learning cues.

Anonymous said...

In his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, Bruce Campbell mentions a unique method he discovered while working in a summer stock program where "Prime-challenged thespians spend their twilight years parading in front of retirees every week...

"As a stage crew member for A Thousand Clowns, I witnessed an acting technique that was new to me. The lead actor, Doug McClure, scanned the crew during a rehearsal.
'Anybody have a pen?' he asked, matter-of-factly.
'Heck yeah!' I volunteered, and raced to the stage with it.
I watched, slack-jawed as my favorite cowboy actor scribbled his lines across the entire set-on props, furniture-anything. Apparently, Doug used these catch-phrases to jog his memory to the next batch of dialogue. The amazing thing was how seamlessly he used these written reminders during performances."

I agree with you, Mark. I prefer being on-book for a portion of rehearsals. It makes it easier to associate lines with action and imbed them more easily into the mind. I started doing the recording trick during my senior year in high school during R&J and found it to be very effective.

Playgoer said...

Yes, I love the "props" standby. Tho it is a tad desperate. My father, an actor, liked to recall a guy who wrote his lines on his forearms--which explained some rather weird jujitsu he performed with his arms during a particularly long speech.

Even the greats use this. Next time you're watching The Godfather, pay attention to Brando's final scene, in the orange grove. Coppola tells of how he watched Brando with wonder fondling an orange through the scene. When the stagehands cleaned up the set afterwards, they found his lines scribbles all over the peel.

In his later years, of course, Brando resorted to being continually prompted line-by-line through an ear-piece. He insisted it maintained his "spontaneity."

Anonymous said...

Wow, the 'luxury' of a 3-4 week rehearsal period? That's standard here in Australia at least in professional theatre.

I learn best on the floor relating lines to moves, placement of scene partners, props use etc. I'd only be off book at the start if the rehearsal period was really shot or a director insisted. Yep hate too much table talk; would much rather get up and at it and explore, find the eyes of my scene partners.

The iPod came a bit late for my use. I like to write lines out in longhand as the days go by ... it helps to consolidate and refresh me on individual words, the heft of a phrase etc.
I worked once with an actor who left his lines on bits of paper round the set. Unfortunately a door slammed a bit hard in one scene and the papers flew off in every direction. Ooops!

Mike Daisey said...

I was less forgiving of Mr. Bits, as I wrote on my site.

Anonymous said...

I started a comment here, but it became a long and rambling blog entry dealing with this post -- both the line-learning process and Norbert Leo Butz's problems -- and also Mike Daisey's completely OPPOSITE reaction to the Times story from yours, which I read one after the other this morning (Eisler coming hot on the heels of Daisey in the blogreader).

You can find my thoughts on this HERE.

Thanks for the inspiration,


Anonymous said...

There's no magic pill for line-learning. It's one of those things that I have to work on every day a little bit, and starting as soon as I get the script, whether rehearsals have started or not. How I approach it depends on the text. If it's a dialogue script that snaps (Coward, Simon) then I'm going to need to hear it to get it - so I'll record it or (better)get someone to run it w/me, hopefully one of the other actors on the piece. If it's a monologue/speechy script (Shakespeare, Greeks), then I can work by myself - out loud repetition, coupled w/movement, usually walking up the hill by my house, or getting house chores done(when I played Macbeth, my house was very clean). What's the first thought? What thought comes after that? What's the connection from thought 1 to thought 2? 2 to 3? And so on. I might write monologues long hand, or type them (a good trick for temps who want to look like they're working), or w/verse, I can write the first letter of each word and make a cheat sheet for drilling. To be or not to be = TBONTB.
VW (SF Actor)

Anonymous said...

For me, the first step is often associating words and phrases with bizarre (and wholly unrelated) visual images. Let us take this line from your post: "So while it is hardly sufficient it is certainly a necessary part of the actor's toolkit." If this line didn't easily cling to my memory, I would break it down visually as follows:

"So": imagine someone sewing
"while it is": the initial letter of each of these words is W,I,I. I then imagine someone sewing a Wii videogame.
"hardly": Similar to Hardy. I imagine a cinematic reveal wherein sewing hands are shown to be mending a Wii and the person doing the sewing is then revealed to be Thomas Hardy.
"sufficient": similar to suffocating. Thomas Hardy is now revealed to be suffocating. As God is my witness, this image will remind me of the word "sufficient."
"it is": Hardy is now gasping "I-- I--", the two initial letters of the phrase.
"certainly a necessary": this phrase's acronym is "CAN." A can now flies into the frame and bonks Hardy on the head. To remind me of the first word of the phrase, the can if full of Certs, which spill out.
"part of the": POT. A pot now hits Hardy in the head.
"actor's toolkit": John Barrymore (actor) now walks into the scene and thrusts his crotch ("toolkit") into Hardy's face.

To quote Albert Brooks in Taxi Driver, "it sounds like a joke, but it's true." This method served me well on "Thom Pain."

I now have an easily memorizable visual sequence: Hands sewing a Wii are revealed to be Thomas Hardy's, who, gasping for breath and attempting an utterance, is beaned with a can of Certs and a pot and then sexually harassed by John Barrymore. Coming up with this sequence of events takes under a minute. A few minutes are then spent going over the textual prompts each of these visual vignettes is meant to promote. Voila! I now have a visual cheat sheet to remind me of the words "So while it is hardly sufficient it is certainly a necessary part of the actor's toolkit." I will employ this technique when necessary throughout the script. (The more grotesque the imagery, the easier it is to memorize.)

This is early work. As rehearsals progress, acting takes over. One figures out why the character is saying the lines. The text is informed by traditional concerns of intention, motivation, etc. The initial nonsensical support imagery dissolves, replaced by the framework of the actual performance. During the run of the show, nary a thought is given to Hardy, Barrymore and their pots and cans. Their work is long done.

Mike Daisey said...

Thanks for that post, James--it's always interesting to see how someone else does it. Mine is similar, but a little more geographical, and not as refined because I rarely am called on to memorize other people's words, so that buffer is instead used holding the monologues, which are not "memorized" in the sense most people mean by that word.

BTW, apologies to Mr. Butz for misspelling his name earlier--damn iPhone.

Susan said...

What I find most surprising about all of this is that everyone praises Norbert Leo Butz for going on and presumably "saving the show" - however, the show has understudies, and the understudy was playing the part for a week before Butz came on. No one thought they should give Butz a few more days to learn the lines (and spare the audience a performance by a guy carrying a script and calling for lines) while the understudy, who knew the lines just fine, played the part? Of course not. That wouldn't garner publicity, or ticket sales.

I say this as a big NLB fan, who purchased tickets to Speed the Plow only once I heard he was going in, and had a very nice time watching him play the part last Tuesday, on book for nearly all of the play. It was actually fascinating to watch the process. But Butz isn't a hero - he's part of a marketing machine trying to keep the press going and trying to keep ticket sales going for a straight play on Broadway.

Anonymous said...

Nice letter in today's Times, Garrett. Hear, hear to you!

Chris Guilmet said...

I fully agree with you, Susan. And I think that Mr. Butz agrees with you, too, since he's being replaced by the even more well known Bill Macy in January.

Ultimately, it is commerce built on art, and commerce is going to have the last word on this one.

Angela said...

I agree with Susan as well. It makes more sense to just let the understudy go on until Mr. Butz has everything memorized.

Anonymous said...

re: Chris:

commerce: isn't that what the play itself is about? lol!

Playgoer said...

Well I was hoping this question would goad the actors out there into some interesting responses, and I am NOT disappointed! I am especially delighted such esteemed professionals as James Urbaniak and Mike Daisey shared their own processes with us.

So thanks to all for a fascinating discussion of all the fun issues involved here. A few follow-ups:

-I agree wholeheartedly that the victim here (aside from anyone who shelled out money to see Speed-the-Plow last week only to see a) Jeremy Piven, or b) an off-book Norbert Butz) is understudy Jordan Lage. Yes, the producers did not NEED to find star replacements for Piven when Lage is utterly capable. And indeed it would have been an overdue boost to his career for people to see him in this role.

But don't forget, this is not a nonprofit theatre. There's a lot of money staked on this run. And a lot of it was banking on Piven. So we can fault them artistically, but I woudln't expect otherwise from the producers.

-For those really, really interested and can't get enough here, Mike Daisey and I actually continued our exchange about this over on Parabasis (
Basically I was struck by Mike's criticism of going onstage off-book when he himself famously always has written notes on stage for his monologue-shows. I ribbed him about that, and he replied that his kind of monologue show just isn't compatible to playing a role in a narrative play.

Perhaps. This also recalled for me a question I always had about Spalding Gray--a trailblazer in Daisey's format. As is evident from all his filmed monologues, a notebook was always one of Gray's standard props on stage, and he duly turned the pages throughout. But when I saw him live once, it became clear to me he NEVER actually read from the notebook. So what do we call that? Interesting strategy to make audience THINK you're on-book when you're actually not. (Perhaps he needed the security of it there. Or was it just a clever onstage signifier of "storytelling"?)

-Finally, I in no way think Mr. Butz (a name that has been the, uh, butts of many fine jokes here) is any "hero" for his tenacity. Don't get me wrong. But we can all agree it does take, well, balls. For better or worse.

Mike Daisey said...

I responded on my site.

Playgoer said...

Thank you, Mike, for elaborating more on your process and adding more context to this discussion.

Mad Fashionista said...

For many years, I used photographic memory to memorize my monologues, and I could usually memorize most of a 70-minute six to ten monologue show after lying on the floor, reading the script over and over, after two days or so. I liked to rehearse script in hand so, like one of the other commenters, I associated words with action. I also reread the script every night before the show (a tradition I've continued to this day).

However, some years ago health issues made memorization incredibly difficult, and I spent the first two years doing my solo show with the script onstage, referring to it when I "went up." I felt perfectly comfortable doing it rather than standing there desperately trying to think of what to say. I still have problems, and no longer have a photographic memory. So I use recordings, and rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals, whether alone or with the cast and crew.

Acting class Los Angeles said...

Honestly, its really hard to memorize lines for a stage play especially if your are the main character and you are always on the stage for a longer time. I'm on an acting classes and they thought me how to memorize and deliver the lines. It's really hard to memorize, but if we will be seroius and work hard, memorizing won't be a problem.