Updated: Jan 5, 2021
What is the best, most efficient way to go about memorizing scenes? It can seem tricky because your lines are interspersed with your partner's lines. You have to understand the back and forth. You have to understand your character in relation to another character. You have to know your lines as well as your cues.
I find it's best when the memorization work is connected to the acting work. They should inform each other, instead of being completely separate processes. They make each other more efficient that way. I'll show you how to do just that in this post. Here is my step-by-step guide to memorizing a scene quickly.
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Step 1: Divide the scene into beats.
In other posts, I've described memorization as a process of mental digestion. It requires breaking down information into bite-sized pieces. Dividing a scene into beats is a great way to do that. What is a beat? A beat division occurs in the text when there is a significant shift in thought, subject, or objective. You can feel when the scene moves. There may sometimes be a natural pause before the dialogue shifts to something distinctly different. Sometimes the beat division is super obvious; sometimes it's more ambiguous, and in those instances it will be up to the actor to choose where they would like the beat division to be and how they'd like to play those moments.
Step 2: Name the beats.
Next, you want to name your beats. Use a brief title that encapsulates what that part of the scene is about. It might be standout phrase that you or your partner says. It might be something your character is thinking or trying to do. Whatever it is, the name of the beat should serve as a sort of in-a-nutshell summary of that beat. Once you have all your beats named, you will have a better sense of the overall trajectory and structure of the scene. You can see how one beat transitions into another beat. Having that broad overview and understanding of the story will help you in memorizing the scene because it provides a mental map of the territory.
Step 3: Circle or underline the key words or phrases.
First, circle or underline the key words or phrases in your character's lines. These will be the words that carry the most meaning and weight; they are the most important. When you speak them, you naturally give them more emphasis.
Next, circle or underline the key words or phrases in your partner's lines that your character is responding to. These are the words that trigger the thought that becomes your character's response in the next line.
Step 4: Make note of any patterns or repetitions in the text.
Draw connecting lines or arrows between your lines and your partner's lines that are clearly rhetorically connected. Often there is a repetition or parallel construction of some kind where a character's lines play off of something the other character previously said. (This is particularly common in Shakespeare.)
A few examples:
From Act IV of Pygmalion
Higgins: Anything wrong?
Eliza: Nothing wrong - with YOU.
Later in the scene...
Eliza: What's to become of me? What's to become of me?
Higgins: How the devil do I know what's to become of you? What does it matter what becomes of you?
You can see that the response is derived from what the other person just said previously. They're connected. There may be other patterns in the text: rhetorical building, alliteration, word play. There might be some rhythm or sound built into the text that provides more meaning.
Here's an example of what I mean by rhetorical building:
In that same scene in Pygmalion:
Eliza: You don't care. I know you don't care. You wouldn't care if I was dead. I'm nothing to you - not so much as them slippers.
You see, she repeats the same phrase but builds upon it, elaborating on JUST HOW MUCH Higgins doesn't care about her. It peaks at "I'm nothing to you."
Paying attention and making note of these types of patterns helps you remember those lines more easily. Pattern, repetition, rhythm, all help make text mentally stickier.
Step 5: Make any acting notes that come to mind.
As you're reading through the text, making beats, underlining key words, etc. you may naturally notice things that inform how you think the scene or role should be played. Make note of anything that may come to you. You might have ideas for expectations, objectives or intentions for your character. Points of surprise or discovery. Images or metaphors for what is going on in the scene. You may discover juicy pieces of subtext. Whatever comes to you, jot it down. Feel free to play around with those ideas.
Step 6: Start memorizing.
Now it's time to get down to the nitty gritty business of really memorizing the text. Start with the script in hand. Get up; speak the text aloud, and incorporate movement/blocking. Focus on one beat at a time. You're trying to memorize the script exactly word-for-word, so slow down and really think about the words. Allow any images representative of some of the key words or phrases to come to mind. Savor the words. Use the vowels and consonants with the character's intention.
Example from Pygmalion:
Higgins: What did you throw those slippers at me for?
Eliza: Because I wanted to smash your face. I'd like to kill you, you selfish brute.
Think how you as Eliza could savor the words "smash your face." Those sibilant sounds are very evocative. What is she picturing there? Hitting Higgins with a frying pan? Smashing him with a shovel? Really indulge that image.
Test yourself. Recite and act a few lines without looking down at your script. Then glance down to see if you got them exactly right. If you made a mistake, go back and repeat those lines again, correctly this time. Think about those particular words. Why is your character using those exact words or that exact phrasing? Everything is intentional. Why must this person's message be expressed in that exact way? Are they trying to be really tactful or euphemistic? Are they hiding something? Or are they blowing up and unleashing themselves spontaneously upon the other person? Make sure there is intention behind the word choices.
Step 7: Set aside the beats you've memorized completely. Spend more time on the beats you are having more trouble with.
Some parts of the scene will be easier to remember than other parts. Often the more difficult parts tend to be in the middle of the scene. Don't just keep running the scene top to bottom over and over. Set the easy beats aside, and give more focus and attention to the ones that are more difficult.
If you keep missing particular lines, think about why. Is there something you haven't fully clarified about that part of the scene? Are you having trouble understanding how a particular line transitions to the next line? Try to make some more meaningful connections. Come up with an image to represent the words you keep forgetting. Maybe highlight the words in a bright color, to make it stand out. Think about what your character might be imagining or thinking there, or what they're trying to accomplish with that line. Or come up with a representative image to link the part of the line you keep missing to the part you know well.
Eliza: There are your slippers. And there. Take your slippers; and may you never have a day's luck with them.
Maybe you're having trouble remembering "and may you never have a day's luck with them." The key word there is "luck." Connect "slippers and "luck" in a linked image, such as a pair of slippers with green four leaf clovers on them.
Eliza: Why didn't you leave me where you picked me out of - in the gutter? You thank God it's all over, and that now you can throw me back again there, do you?
Maybe you keep remembering the line up to "in the gutter" but you're having trouble remembering the next part is "You thank God it's all over." Picture a bowling alley with a bowling ball in the gutter. Imagine Higgins kneeling down before it in prayer. God's benevolence is shining down upon him.
These sorts of representative images should help you get over those hurdles in your memorization. Once you have those lines down, you won't actually need to picture those images as you're performing.
Good old fashioned repetition also helps, of course. Drill those rough spots until you feel you've got them down.
Step 8: Run through the scene off book, without the script.
Once you feel pretty confident with all of your beats, put the beats back in the correct order, put down the script and run the scene off book top to bottom a few times. As much as you can, act as if you are in performance. Don't be too hard on yourself. The new feeling of not having the script might make you feel a bit nervous, and may throw you off a bit. Just try to get used to it.
Identify any rough spots in this context, and work through those, always returning to working with the scene as a whole. You want to get that overall perspective of the scene again.
Step 9: TAKE A BREAK.
Take a break. Do something completely different. Taking a nap or doing some exercise are great options; both activities boost/consolidate memory.
To learn more about the importance of sleep and exercise to memory, check out these posts:
Step 10: Practice the scene again in spaced intervals.
Spaced repetition is an important tool for learning. We remember things best when we space out learning over time. To take advantage of this, revisit the material over spaced intervals.
How you time your repetitions depends on how soon you want the material memorized. Your intervals increase with every repetition. Let's say you want the scene memorized in a day or two. You might revisit the scene using these intervals:
1st repetition: After 15-20 minutes
2nd repetition: After 1-2 hours
3rd repetition: After 6-8 hours
4th repetition: After 24 hours
Here is an additional post that will help with memorizing a scene:
Ready to learn more? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way
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