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Memorize this: How stage actors learn all their lines

tips on how to learn lines

How good is your memory? Is it shot, like mine? Do you know all your passwords? Can you remember what you did last Tuesday? If someone asked you to recall every item you bought during a recent trip to the grocery store, could you do it?

Now consider the brain power involved in memorizing an entire script for a play — and retaining it for months, if not longer.

I can't think of the last time I had to commit entire sentences to memory. Can you? Actors do it all the time. Learning lines is a basic part of their job. So basic, I'm not sure as an entertainment reporter I've ever asked about it.

And yet, aren't you curious?

This is what happens when you fall asleep at a play

Nina Metz

"They keep waking me up!"

"They keep waking me up!" ( Nina Metz )

I thought about this recently while watching old episodes of "Deadwood." Creator David Milch was notorious for working on scripts until the last minute, which meant "it was a foregone conclusion we wouldn't be able to learn our lines," the character actor Stephen Tobolowsky wrote in an essay for Backstage magazine earlier this year. "Ian McShane told me to keep looking at him, stay in character and just call out 'Line.'" The scene became a "standoff of two actors saying, 'Line'" — with the prompts edited out of the final product.

That's actually pretty funny. It would never work in theater. There are no retakes. There is no editing. Once the performance begins, everyone has to know the dialogue. Memorizing the script might just be the most fundamental thing an actor can do besides showing up at the theater.

"It's still the hardest thing for me," said Gwendolyn Whiteside, who plays an Air Force drone pilot in the solo show "Grounded," presented by American Blues Theater. "I don't know about other actors, but for me it feels like I'm pulling teeth."

The classic anxiety dream for actors? Stepping on stage and forgetting your lines.

So would it surprise you to

know that the actors I spoke with said memorization techniques were not on the curriculum at their theater schools? "It inevitably comes up," said Cindy Gold, who runs the acting program at Northwestern University, "but my experience is that you can't teach it. It is a skill that is individual to each person. I mainly read the script a lot. I just read it, read it, read it."

That sounds … depressing. But it's the same way I learned songs on the piano as a kid. Play it again. And again. Over and over.

Steve Waltien is in the cast of Second City's main stage show "Depraved New World." While there is some improvisation in Second City shows, they are primarily written and memorized by the performers. Waltien begins by reading a script three times. And then he buckles down.

"I'll take a sheet of scrap paper that I fold in half and I use that to cover over everything but the line I'm trying to memorize and the line before it (known as the cue line), and I'll quiz myself to see if I can say it without looking. Then I'll move the paper down to my next line."

The scrap paper method is a common one. But there are ways to juice that process along. Whiteside researched neuroscience on Google "to see if there were things that helped the brain," she said, "because there has to be a smarter way to do this than just drilling, reading it over and over again."

Here's what she found. "I read all of these articles that kept saying when you memorize something, you should read a section and then immediately take a nap. Because somehow the brain will process the short-term memory and push all of that information you just loaded into a different section of the brain that is better for longer recall.

I play the violin, so I have some experience memorizing concerti. Memorizing a play sounds a lot more difficult. The most challenging memory test I've heard of is this piece in the NY Times about the London cabdriver's exam.

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