Stanislavsky Sucked at Memorizing Lines

Updated: Jan 6

"Станиславский" by Library ABB 2013 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Yes, you read that title correctly. The godfather of modern acting himself, Constantin Stanislavsky, by his own admission, was horrible at memorizing lines. Check out this passage from his autobiography, My Life in Art:

I was out of tune with the text. Part of this fault must be blamed on my naturally defective memory. This even forces me to watch myself in the moments of complete spiritual revelation and when I am completely in the grasp of my intuition and emotion. In those moments my memory seems to throw out its buffers, without giving me the opportunity to touch that high point where the region of the superconscious begins. My memory, which distrusts itself, is almost completely devoid of mechanical action, and forces me to watch myself continually so that I may not break the continuity of the text. Otherwise there would be trouble. There would be a pause, a white blot on the sheet where the words of the part are written, complete helplessness and panic. This great fault takes away from me at least twenty-five percent of my temperament in climacteric [sic] moments. My faulty oral memory is stressed by the fact that in calm scenes and pauses, or during rehearsals, when I speak my own words without having learned the text, I can freely reveal myself at full and show all that is in my soul. Besides this bad fault a prejudice also lived in me at that time. I said to myself:
"The gist of the matter is not in the text. The text will come of itself, when I feel the role."
True, this sometimes happens. But at times it is altogether different. While the text is weak, the role is not felt. The dropping of words from the text, the unclear interpretation of thought, the crumpling of sentences and words, the quietness of voice and unclear pronunciation interfered not only with my acting, but with the public hearing and understanding me.

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Apparently, this was a problem Stanislavsky was never able to resolve in his lifetime. It remained a fault to the end. I bet many actors can relate to his plight and recognize that dreadful experience of panic and self-consciousness he describes so eloquently in this passage.

I find this interesting, because many of the techniques he invented, such as breaking the play into beats and coming up with objectives, when used as tools to analyze text, all help to make lines more memorable. But it is clear that for many actors, including himself, this isn't enough! His practice and techniques did not place enough focus on marrying the action to the text. Indeed, his approach to a role started with finding physical actions and improvising using one's own words based on the story of the play, but only incorporating the actual text of the play in later steps.

I am thoroughly convinced that the essential missing piece to all actor training today is memory training. Just think, how much of an actor's job is memorizing lines? How many hours are spent on this incredibly important task? And yet, there is almost NO training for this! It's absurd!

Stanislavsky said that his faulty memory took away 25% of his performance, preventing him from fully surrendering and absorbing himself into the role. HOLY MOLY, 25%! Look at yourself honestly, is difficulty learning your lines taking away 25% of your acting? It doesn't have to be this way! Scientists have learned so much about the brain and memory and learning. It's time to incorporate these insights into actor training.

Ready to get started, super-boosting your line memorization? Check out this post for some science-backed tips to memorize lines.

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