Updated: Jan 6, 2021
*IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS.*
If you're reading this right now, there is a strong possibility you're in big trouble. So maybe you were cast in the starring role of a play, but time got away from you; you were busy with other things. Now opening night is getting close, and you, my friend, are SWEATING because you don't have your lines memorized. You may be feeling a toxic mix of guilt, shame, and utter embarrassment.
First, take a deep breath. There's a glimmer of hope. I'm going to lay out step-by-step exactly how to memorize an entire role in a single day. I assure you, this is the best shot you have at getting off book as quickly as possible.
As I've said in other posts, memorization is like a process of digestion. When we eat, we don't just swallow food whole. We take mouthful size bites; we chew and coat the food with saliva before swallowing. The acid in our stomach breaks down the food even further, and the digestion continues in our intestines until the food is broken down into its constituent nutrients which can be absorbed by our bodies. It's the same way with memorization. In order to fully absorb and retain the words, you need to break down the text into successively smaller pieces. That is the process I'm going to lay out for you here.
This is actually a great method to use to memorize any role, whether or not you are pressed for time. So keep it in mind for the future.
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1. Create an outline of the play.
First we need to start with a big picture overview of the whole play. The outline will serve as a sort of map. And we'll zoom in closer with more detail later on. You need to always know where you are in the journey of the play, so you never get lost. Don't obsess or take too much time with this step. You want to spend most of your time on the later steps which involve the actual memorization of the text. But this step is important as a foundation.
Make a list of every scene in the play.
Name each scene. Just use a brief title that sums it up nicely.
Make a sublist of any monologues you have in each scene. (Put the monologue sublist under the scene name.)
Name the monologues. Or use the first line of the monologue as the name.
Bold and/or highlight the specific scenes that you actually appear in and have lines in.
OPTIONAL: If necessary, write a one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene. (Do this only if you feel you need a reminder of the various events.)
This list will be your map. It's an outline or skeleton of the play, which makes it so you can see the journey from beginning to end in one glance. This will also serve as a checklist so you can keep track of which scenes you have fully memorized and which ones need some more work.
Looking at it in this way, it already makes the role more organized and manageable.
Here is an example outline I created for the role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Take a look and use it as a guide:
Prologue – Summary of play.
Scene 1: The Street Fight
Scene 2: The Party Invitation
Scene 3: Girl Talk
Scene 4: Pregame
Scene 5: The Party
Scene 1: Where’s Romeo?
Scene 2: The Balcony Scene
“Romeo, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo”
“Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face”
Scene 3: Enlisting the Friar
Scene 4: The Nurse Meets Romeo
Scene 5: Nurse’s News
“The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse”
Scene 6: The Wedding
Scene 1: Mercutio and Tybalt killed. Romeo banished.
Scene 2: News of death and banishment.
“Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds.”
“Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?”
Scene 3: Friar comforts and counsels Romeo.
Scene 4: Marriage promised to Paris.
Scene 5: The Morning After.
Scene 1: The Friar helps Juliet.
“Tell me not, Friar, that thou hearest of this”
Scene 2: Amends and agreement to marry.
Scene 3: Drink the vial.
“Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again.”
Scene 4: Marriage feast prep.
Scene 5: Juliet discovered “dead.”
Scene 1: Romeo learns of Juliet’s “death.”
Scene 2: Friar’s letter undelivered.
Scene 3: In the Capulet tomb.
So we can see the role of Juliet is 11 scenes, 7 monologues. It's helpful to see that, so we know exactly the challenge ahead of us. It is measurable. And it makes our progress trackable.
When you have your list, take a few moments to do a quick journey through the play in your mind. This helps you see the big picture of what your character goes through.
So if you've already been working on the play and been in rehearsal for some time now, it's possible you already have some of the scenes or monologues memorized to some degree. Sort the scenes and monologues into four categories according to how well you know them. Treat monologues as separate entities from the scenes they are embedded in. You can do this by making another list, with the scene and monologue names in each assigned category. (You don't need to actually move pages around in your script. That could get confusing.) Doing this, you can focus and use your time and attention most efficiently by targeting the parts that urgently need the most work.
Category 1: Scenes and monologues you don't have memorized at all or barely at all.
Category 2: Scenes and monologues you have somewhat memorized.
Category 3: Scenes and monologues you have mostly memorized.
Category 4: Scenes and monologues you have fully memorized.
If you don't have anything memorized, just put it all in Category 1.
3. Take Category 1 and sort the scenes and monologues by most number of lines to least.
You want to start working on the scenes or monologues where you have the most lines.
Again, this is part of targeting the parts of the role that need the most work. Do a quick, rough estimate of the number of lines; it doesn't need to be exact. You might want to start working on the monologues first since they are portions of long, sustained speech. But that is up to you.
4. Take the first scene or monologue and divide it into beats. Name each beat.
So now that you've identified the scene/monologue that you know the least with the most lines, start with that one. Just like how we created an outline for the entire play, this step creates an outline for the scene/monologue.
In case you're not familiar with dividing a text into beats, a beat division occurs when there is a significant shift in the text. This is often a shift in thought, subject matter, or action. Basically, you're trying to break down the text into its constituent parts. So think about the scene/monologue and look for the recognizable chunks that make up that scene/monologue. After you've made the beat divisions, name each beat. Use a title that sums up what that chunk is all about. You can pencil these titles into your script.
It helps if you happen to have a digital copy of the script that can be edited so you can format the text to your liking with these beat divisions. Especially with monologues, it can help to use spacing or line breaks to make it more visually organized. If that isn't available to you, that's okay. Just mark the divisions in your physical script with a pencil.
Do a quick overview of the scene or monologue, so you know exactly what happens in it and can get a sense of the overall journey from beginning to end.
5. Break down each beat in the scene/monologue into phrases of between 5-9 words.
This step is based on the psychological finding that our short-term working memory is limited, and at any given time, the most it can effectively hold is on average about 7, or between 5-9 "bits" of information. So to accommodate this cognitive quirk, we're going to break down each beat into its constituent phrases. Go through and mark divisions in your script, making phrases of between 5-9 words or less. Use natural phrasing; don't break the text in an awkward place. If there is a conflict between the natural phrasing and whether a phrase will exceed 9 words, say if it ends up being 10 words, go with the phrasing. I don't think it's a big deal. The coherence of the idea is more important and will take care of it.
6. Memorize one beat at a time, one phrase at a time.
Okay, now we're going to get into the nitty gritty of really memorizing the text. Take the first beat and read through it once. Get a sense of the little mini journey contained in that one beat. Next, start with the first phrase in the beat and memorize the phrase.
Some ways to go about memorizing the phrase:
Speak and repeat the phrase aloud several times.
Slow down and pay attention to the individual words, especially the more important key words that carry the bulk of the meaning (generally verbs, adjectives, and nouns). Mull them over and allow your mind to free associate upon the word or words. Think of the connotations of that word or the various contexts where you commonly see the word.
Think of rich images that illustrate and represent those key words. Use all your senses to really make them come alive. The mind remembers images best, so this can be particularly helpful.
Hear yourself speak the words and pay attention to how they sound. What feelings do the words evoke?
Think of the intention behind the words. Why is your character saying these exact words? What are they trying to do or achieve? Is there any subtext to the words? Experiment by saying the phrase with different intentions.
Bottom line, let your imagination enrich the words. The more meaning and elaboration the words have in your mind, the stickier they will be. You want to work on the phrase to the point where those individual words in the phrase become glued together in your mind. At that point the 5-9 words will no longer function as individual "bits." The phrase itself will become a single unit or "bit" in your mind.
Just an example to show you exactly what I mean: Take the phrase "Old Macdonald Had a Farm." Those are 5 words, but we don't perceive them as 5 bits of information; because we are familiar with the phrase as a title of a song, it functions for us as a single unified bit. We want the same thing to happen with our phrases in the text we're trying to memorize.
Work one phrase at a time. Then start putting the phrases together, until you can recite the whole beat in full.
Be sure to test yourself. Take your eyes away from your script and make an effort to find the words with your memory. Then glance at your script to check if you recited the words correctly. The simple act of testing yourself strengthens the recall of the lines.
Get on your feet and experiment with blocking or incorporate the blocking that was established in your rehearsals. Get up and really act! The physical movement and emotional engagement will also strengthen the memorization.
When you've memorized the beat, move onto the next beat and work on it in the same way. Do this with every beat until you've reached the end of the scene/monologue.
If you're working on memorizing a scene, you don't need to memorize your partner's lines word for word, but you need a decent grasp of them. When you reach your partner's lines, read the lines and think about them from your character's perspective. Think about how they impact your character, what response it triggers. Especially focus on the key words and cues that your character is responding to with their next line. Circle or highlight those key words if you'd like.
For a more detailed explanation of how to grasp that interwoven relationship between your lines and your partner's lines, check out this post:
When you've gone through and worked on each beat, try to recite the scene/monologue in full from beginning to end. This will reveal which beats still need a little more work. Spend some more time on those beats before moving on to the next scene/monologue.
For more detailed treatments on memorizing scenes and monologues, see the following posts:
7. Take a short break each time before moving on to the next scene/monologue.
Breaks are actually helpful to the memorization process. They're like a palette cleanser for the mind. The brain has a tendency to remember things that occur at the beginning and end of a series or session; this is called the primacy and recency effect. Frequent breaks makes it so you have more beginnings and endings to work with!
So I suggest taking a short break of about 5-15 minutes each time before moving on to the next scene/monologue on your Category 1 list. It will help you set aside the previous scene/monologue, so you can approach the new one fresh. (I will give you the opportunity for longer breaks later.)
8. Repeat steps 4-7 for each scene/monologue on your Category 1 list.
Pretty straightforward. Just do the same thing: break into beats, break into phrases, memorize phrase by phrase and beat by beat.
9. Do the same steps 3-8 for Category 2 and 3.
So you should do the same break down and memorization process for Category 2 and 3. But you should find it goes a little faster, since you already have those scenes/monologues memorized to some degree.
You can also do the same thing for Category 4 if you find it helpful, but if you're really pressed for time, you don't have to, since you already have those scenes/monologues memorized solid.
10. Take a nap or do some exercise.
So at this point, you've worked on the entire role. You've given it your first go around with the memorization. Like I said before, breaks are really important. So give yourself a decent sized break here. The best thing you could do on your break is take a nap. Aim for about 30-90 minutes of sleep. Sleep is crucial for the consolidation of memory. Getting a nap in right after studying your lines will improve your retention and recall when you wake up.
Another great option is to do some exercise. Do a 15-30 minute session of aerobic exercise such as running or cycling. Get your heart rate up. Or do some yoga. Exercise has also been shown to improve memory.
To learn more about the importance of sleep and exercise to memory, read the following posts:
11. Re-categorize your scenes and monologues according to how well you know them.
Next you should evaluate your memorization progress and re-categorize your scenes and monologues accordingly. You can do this by making a new list.
So at this point, you actually shouldn't have anything left on your Category 1 list, since that was originally for the scenes and monologues you didn't know at all. You have three categories left. Just a reminder of what those were again:
Category 2: Scenes and monologues you have somewhat memorized.
Category 3: Scenes and monologues you have mostly memorized.
Category 4: Scenes and monologues you have fully memorized.
A good way to evaluate how well you know a scene/monologue is to use what I call The Speed Test. To do this, simply recite the scene or monologue at a faster speed than you normally would. Text that is thoroughly memorized should tumble out of your mouth without much effort. But if you stumble at certain parts or have to slow down or stop to recall the words, that is an indication those parts could use some more work.
12. Review the scenes/monologues using spaced repetition.
It's long been observed in scientific studies that we learn and retain information best when we space out our learning over time. Doing this is called spaced repetition. To learn more about spaced repetition, check out this post:
Using our three remaining categories, we're going to do our own version of what is called The Leitner System. Here is how it works:
Each category will be assigned a spaced interval, and you will review the material in that category according to the assigned time interval. For example:
Review the scenes/monologues in Category 2 every hour.
Review the scenes/monologues in Category 3 every two hours.
Review the scenes/monologues in Category 4 every three hours.
If you're more pressed for time, just shorten the time intervals. Here's an alternate spaced interval assignment:
Review the scenes/monologues in Category 2 every half hour.
Review the scenes/monologues in Category 3 every hour
Review the scenes/monologues in Category 4 every two hours.
Come up with the intervals you think would work best for you, given your circumstances and time constraints. The most important thing is just to have some amount of time before you revisit the same scene/monologue again.
Don't freak out if you find your recall of the lines is reduced somewhat when you revisit them after the spaced interval. That's actually the purpose of spaced repetition. The theory is that the break of time in between allows for a little bit of forgetting. The subsequent mental effort you use to recall the material again is what strengthens the memory.
When you review the scene/monologue, recite as much as you can from memory. Get away from the page as much as possible. Only use the script to check yourself. Use the blocking to help you. Target the specific beats or phrases that are giving you the most trouble. Spend most of your time working through those trouble spots.
Here is a post with several tips to help you memorize those particular tough spots:
Here is a particularly helpful technique for if there is a specific word or words you keep getting wrong: Let's say the phrase you're trying to memorize is "But just because you have a reference like that." You keep incorrectly saying, "But just because you have a recommendation like that." Okay, so how do you nail it in your head that the correct word is reference and NOT recommendation?
Write out the incorrect phrase by hand, making the incorrect word "recommendation" significantly larger than the other words. Then draw a big X through that incorrect word. Do this five times.
Then write out the correct phrase making the correct word "reference" larger than the other words. Do this five times.
The next time you review the line again, you should be able to remember the correct version more easily.
As you go through this process of review, keep evaluating your progress. As your memorization of a scene/monologue improves, move it to the next category up. Your ultimate goal is to get all of the scenes/monologues into Category 4.
13. When everything has made it to Category 4, run through the lines in chronological order.
Go back to the original outline of the play and make sure you remember the correct order of events. Using the outline as a guide, do a quick run-through of those events in your mind. Then run all of your lines from the beginning to the end of the play.
14. Get a good night's sleep.
The biggest boost you can give to your memorization is to get a good night's sleep of between 7-9 hours. Sleep will allow your brain to process and solidify all that learning. So try to set aside the worry and get some sleep.
Looking for an additional brain boost? There are several natural herbs and essential oils known to enhance memory. Read about them in the below post:
Ready to learn more? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way