Memorizing My Lines

In all of my performance classes, without fail, I’ve had to memorize lines at some point or another.

This year, in Voice class, I had to memorize an edited version of JFK’s “We go to the moon” speech.  I was the one who edited it, and it came down to about a little over a page of text.

And I memorized it, fluidly, in about 3 days.  Not bad.

So, here’s how I normally go about memorizing my lines:

  1. If there is an original recording of the speech, or lines in question, avoid it at all costs.  Do not taint your performance with someone else’s interpretation.
  2. Understand the text.  This is the most important part.  What am I saying?  Why am I saying it?  Who am I saying it to?  Why do they care?  Why do I care?  What is causing me to speak?
  3. Examine the text for clues.  What is the key word, or idea in each sentence?  Look for rhetorical devices, like metaphor, repetition, etc.
  4. Break the text into “argument” sections.  These are usually just paragraphs.
  5. Record myself speaking the lines, without any “acting” – just speaking them normally, and adding the appropriate pauses and breaks for punctuation.
  6. Break that recording up into the argument sections, and put the individual files on my MP3 player in speaking order
  7. While I’m walking in between classes, play the sections.  Listen to myself, pretending I’m the audience.  Ponder how to deliver what I’m hearing.  Ponder how to deliver any rhetorical devices.
  8. Start to speak the lines with the recording.  For me, this is the kinesthetic learning bit.  My mouth and lips learn the “dance” of the speech, so that if I happen to forget a line, my mouth and lips know where to go for the next line, which may remind me what my next line is (understanding the logical structure of the argument also helps to pull out of forgotten lines – if I need to get from A to C, of course I need B…)
  9. Repeat repeat repeat.  Keep playing the MP3 player, and speaking the lines to myself.  Go section by section.
  10. Play the MP3 player even when I’m working on other things, so that it’s playing in the background.
  11. Sleep (without the MP3 player playing).  It’s amazing how, in the morning, all the stuff that I’ve been repeating in my ears and with my mouth is still there, and comes faster and naturally.
  12. Now I’m ready to try to rehearse this thing.  If I have scene partners, I get together with them and just give it a shot.  If I’m doing a solo performance (like with the JFK speech), I try delivering it aloud to an audience of friends.
  13. Practice practice practice.  Rehearse.  Don’t get stuck in a delivery pattern.  I try new things:  I dance the speech, yell the speech, whisper the speech, seduce with the speech.  I get playful.  I put the story of the speech at higher priority than my performance; what is absolutely necessary is that the message/story gets across.  The “acting” is secondary.

And that’s how I do it.  Nothing special, and it works for me.

2 thoughts on “Memorizing My Lines

  1. Greg Wilson

    I find #1 interesting: the first thing I do (or did) when learning a new piece is (was) listen to as many different versions as possible.

  2. Mike

    I did something like that for a scene from Hamlet. I watched scenes from Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, etc.

    What I found, was that no matter what I tried in rehearsal, I would always have their performances in the back of my mind to compare against, and I would end up doing impressions of their performances rather than my own interpretation.

    I had seen Kennedy speak the Rice University speech before, but I tried desperately to keep it out of my mind. The last thing I wanted was to have that famous accent creep into my performance. 🙂


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