How did you memorize those lines?

“How did you memorize those lines?” I heard this question for the first time as an undergraduate sitting in the audience during a post-show conversation with the actors.

The “How did you memorize those lines?” question elicited eye-rolling, sneers, and ill-concealed laughter from my theatre-major friends and me. (We experimented with a lot of things back then, but compassion wasn’t really one of them.) Of all the questions in the world, that was the most boring, and even disrespectful. To us, asking an actor how she memorized her words was like asking a chef how she learned to boil water. Like, who cares? Ideally after all, by the time the play is performed, the actor has been wrestling with characterization, motivation, physicalization, concentration, comic timing, emotion, back-stage politics, the arc of the show and the journey of her character. Performing in a play is the most fun and wonderfully addictive experience ever, but it’s also an enormous amount of work, requiring the ability to take risks, manage fear, play well with others, jump into the unknown and surrender to the art. Memorizing the words is just the crappy scut work that you do to get to the good stuff. Put in the time, pound it out and memorize your stuff. It ain’t fun, it ain’t glamorous. And like,why would we want to spend time talking about it?

As a side note, I’ve heard the ‘memorize-lines question’ in post-show discussions many times since then. For plays with complex language sequences, that question can reveal interesting tidbits about how shows come together in rehearsal. However, I think it generally surfaces when audience members don’t know what else to say. If audience members don’t have something to say after 90-120 minutes of live theatre, then that’s very interesting, right? Perhaps they need guidance, guidelines, or a new configuration of people to dialogue with (content experts, designers, the playwright, the artistic director, etc.)? For a fantastic article about post-show discussions, check out Brant Russell’s article on HowlRound. Yes, I’d like to lead your next post-show conversation. Contact me and we’ll talk.

Back to the subject matter at hand….
So, friends, the karma-machine has struck again, kicking me well and fully in the butt. Because now I am asking that same question….of MYSELF.

I’ve been cast in Little Green Pig’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard II which will be performed this September. Hurrah! I’m extremely truly grateful for the opportunity. I’m super excited. I’m going to work my tail off. But holy cow, how am I going to memorize these lines? I am now fantasizing about a post-show discussion when someone will ask me, “Tamara, how did you memorize those lines?” and I can say, “Well, friend, this is how I did it…”. And I will have done it. Can we skip to that part?

The good news is Willie Shakes gave my character lots of rhymes and a fairly consistent iambic pentameter. So at this point, I know when I’m missing words, and I know the ending words for two sentences back-to-back. However, I don’t so much know the words in between. Hopefully, the audience won’t mind when I say, “Shall I da DUM da DUM da DUM da sight? Or with da DUM da DUM da DUM da height?” Impressive, yes?

The language is beautiful, lush, evocative, and in my character’s case, rather bloody. So inspiring. So damn tricky to memorize. Here’s an example:

O God defend my soul from such deep sin!
Shall I seem crest-fall’n in my mother’s sight?
Or with pale beggar-fear impeach my height
Before this out-dared dastard? Ere my tongue
Shall wound my honour with such feeble wrong,
Or sound so base a parle, my teeth shall tear
The slavish motive of recanting fear,
And spit it bleeding in her high disgrace,
Where shame doth harbour, even in Mowbray’s face.

What the what!? Are you feeling sorry for me or sneering like the 20 year-old undergraduate me? Regardless, the fact remains that I must memorize these lines or else. Fear = the best motivator!

So what’s the plan? It’s not complicated, but here it is:

  • Start now. Work everyday. Carry my script wherever I go in case of unexpected downtime.
  • Work with my eyes, ears, and mouth and mind. This means reading the words and picturing them on the page. Listening to myself saying them over and over. Feeling myself speaking the words so I get them in my mouth. Mapping the words in my mind thru various associations and word games. Eventually, I’ll get the body in on it when we’re in rehearsal and can connect the words to action and location.
  • Reconcile myself to the uncomfortableness of this process. Training for a marathon doesn’t feel like skipping-to-the-lou. It’s going to be hard, get over it.
  • Enlist the help of my sweet husband and any other person who will help me run lines. There is no app for this (well, there is, but not one exactly like what I need). For me, there’s no substitute for a live someone who will work patiently with me over and over again.
  • Indulge in a large quantity of profanity without judgement. I don’t swear much, but learning my lines gives me potty mouth. Not good creative swears either, but clumsy ugly strings of mumbled curses. It’s embarrassing, but it happens every time and I just can’t sweat it.
  • Use the power of positive thinking. Yes, I’m a gigantic super-dork! But seriously, if I can’t cheer-lead myself through this, then that’s just self-defeating, isn’t it? I’m going to be doing some powerful positive visualizing and self-talk.
  • And’s painful even to type this….I’m going to start running (um, jogging). The last time I performed Shakespeare (a long time ago), the rhythm of running helped me learn my lines and build the breath control to say them. I really hate running, but I’m going to try it. Please, wish me luck.

What works for you when you are facing a challenging task (memorization or otherwise)? How do you motivate yourself and organize your work on a specific project? Are you wondering why I spent time writing this post instead of working on my lines?

8 thoughts on “How did you memorize those lines?”

  1. Love this Tamara! We must converse on this topic. I memorize thought by thought rather than line by line and find Shakespeare easier to memorize in some ways because the thoughts are long and the imagery is so palpable. You will be great, and I would love to run lines with you!

  2. This is really interesting Tamara, because people often ask me “How do you know these equations?” or “How do you remember that?” as if there’s some kind of trick, or if it’s something that I have to do as though I were performing. Teaching is like performing in many ways, right? My befuddled response is that I don’t memorize them, I know them. If there’s an equation I need, I don’t memorize what characters are in it, I get to know what it means. Then I don’t have to remember it at all.

    By the way, Richard II is probably my favorite English monarchy story, and Shakespeare’s characterization of it is rather telling historically. Is this a local production that I can come see?

    1. Joel, you’ve inspired me with “I don’t memorize them, I know them….I get to know what it means.” I think that’s what I’ll ultimately do, but I often forget that when I’m in the trenches of memorization-land. Thanks for the reminder.
      The show opens on Sept. 6 in Durham. Don’t worry, you’ll hear more about it from me as we get closer. :) It would be fantastic if you could be there to see it.

  3. That 20-year-old undergraduate attitude still lives on within me, I must admit. I do, however, also find it astounding to see friends in a play who have memorized all *those* words, ones I didn’t have to. Funny how that works.

    Like Mary (Hey Mary!) and Joel said before me, the key really is knowing the what, then the words simply follow. That has helped me in every play I’ve ever been in. Yes, even the ones you wrote!

    Break a leg!

    1. Oh, Thadman, I miss you! You, and Mary, and Joel are wise (and correct, of course)! Sigh, I guess I’ll have to understand what I’m actually saying. :) I’m so glad to know that you understood the ‘what’ in the both hands’ scripts. Cheryl and I mostly understood that too. Hee hee. Love!

  4. By now it’s almost a foreign language…. But three thoughts, inspired somewhat from the music side. Try writing out the challenging bits. Then, although some might think it risky, maybe watch and/or listen to several performances, such as this one: . Finally, I’m guessing theater is a lot like music in this: everyone misses a few notes, and in singing everyone makes up a few words! Like others have said, in words fitter than this natter, it’s the sense and the passion that gives meaning to the chatter.

    1. Arnie! Thanks for the comment, suggestions, and support (and the lovely rhyme — “natter” is fabulous). Yes, writing and watching are things I left off my list that should be included. And the forgiveness that I offer to myself when I don’t get it 100% right. Wow, I miss seeing you. Many hugs…t

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