Updated: Jan 5, 2021
In my step-by-step guide to memorizing a scene, I gave a detailed description of how to break down a scene, analyze it, and how to use various components to help memorize the scene. In this post, I'm going to explain a very simple exercise that can be used as an additional aid. You can do it as you are running lines or practicing a scene, with or without a partner.
Step 1: First, if you haven't done so already, underline or circle the key words or phrases in your character's lines. These are the words that carry the most meaning and weight; you naturally emphasize them when you speak them. Next, circle or underline the key words or phrases in your partner's lines that your character is reacting to or responding to. These are the words that trigger the thoughts that becomes your character's response in the next line.
Step 2: Start from the beginning and read through the scene. (If you are working with a scene partner, have them read their own lines.) You may want to go a little slower than you normally would, at least at first. When you reach a key word or phrase in your partner's lines, really hear the words, allow them to impact you, and take in a breath. Really breathe. Feel your rib cage expand. Use that inhalation to drive your reaction and your next line. Think of the inhalation as the simultaneous taking in of your partner's words and the triggering of the new thoughts that become your response. Allow your exhale to come with the speaking of your next line. Keep doing this for the rest of the scene.
What if your character doesn't respond right away? Maybe your partner has a whole paragraph of lines before you actually get to say your next line. Think, what is your character doing during that interval? What are they thinking? How do they feel about what the other person is saying? Use your breath to drive that reaction. You might breathe several times during their paragraph. If it helps you, mark in your script where you will be breathing. Maybe your character is flabbergasted and is having trouble gathering their thoughts. Maybe they are confused or annoyed. Maybe they are furious and they are keeping quiet for the moment to keep from exploding. (Your reactions will be a gift to your scene partner, as it will help propel them onward as they speak their lines.) As more of your partners keywords come, keep taking them in. Allow their words to shape your thoughts and change the formulation of your response.
Pay attention to the quality of your breath and how it relates to your words and your intentions. Is it sharp and biting? Deep and bellowing? Smooth and unruffled? How your character breathes tells you a lot about the person's emotional state. Use your breath to power your actions.
Example from Pygmalion:
HIGGINS: We want none of your Lisson Grove prudery here, young woman. You've got to learn to behave like a duchess. Take her away, Mrs. Pearce. If she gives you any trouble, wallop her.
ELIZA [springing up and running between Pickering and Mrs. Pearce for protection] No! I'll call the police, I will.
So we see there are several key phrases in Higgins's lines. Eliza probably hears them and reacts in some way. But what compels her to respond with her next line are Higgins's words "wallop her." So in this example, if you were playing Eliza, you would inhale on "wallop her" in preparation for your response of "No!" That inhalation might be a terrified gasp.
So what is the point of this exercise? Like how the practice of yoga marries the breath to physical movement, this exercise is meant to marry the breath to thought and speech. It helps you listen more actively and become more aware of how your lines and your scene partner's lines are interrelated. You will soon notice that breath activates thought. This will make picking up your cues more dynamic and recalling your lines more easy and automatic.
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