My Favorite Strategy for Learning a Role: Engage Your Senses

 

About a year ago I listened to to an episode of the Kwik Brain podcast all about hacking your brain in order to learn lines more efficiently. I’d recommend anyone looking for some new strategies check out the episode and the second part, too. However, of all of the concepts presented in the two episodes, only one strategy has really stuck with me and become a crucial part of my preparation for a show. I’ve now used this strategy to learn several roles, and am always eager to share with others, because it has been a game changer.

This strategy is to engage all of your senses.

Learning lines is often a very cerebral, inactive process– sitting down with a script and working at scenes over and over until you have them down. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. If you find this just isn’t cutting it for you, though, here’s another idea.

Human memory is associated very strongly with certain senses. For example, catching a whiff of a familiar perfume or tasting a familiar brand of candy can vividly remind us of certain people or times. When I eat cherry Twizzler nibs, I am effectively transported back in time to weekends at my dad’s house, when I’d buy these and eat them while I played my favorite video games. Perhaps feeling cold air or smelling dry leaves in the fall reminds you of going back to school and makes you feel nostalgic. Certain memories are so closely associated with certain sensations that seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, or tasting something from a very bad or good time can make you feel bad or good immediately upon contact.

Memory is connected to your physical senses. So how can you harness this in learning your lines?

The first thing you should try is to rehearse exactly as you will perform as much as possible. For example, if you know your blocking yet and have access to the space in which you will be performing, try memorizing your lines with the movements in the space. This way, the process is made physical– also a huge boon for memorization. Arriving early to rehearsal or staying late where possible to run choreography or blocking on the stage can therefore be even more helpful than rehearsing at home. The sights, smells, and sensations of the performance space can all serve as cues to aid in memorization. This is called context dependent memory and is an actual, scientific phenomenon!

Therefore, always opt for extra rehearsal time in the performance venue where possible. Instead of leaving early and practicing at home, capitalize on your time in the venue as much as you can!

But let’s say you don’t have access to the space– this is probably more likely for most performers, anyway.

The performance space will be unique in many sensory ways. For instance, the building might be air conditioned and frequently be cold, or might have a distinct smell. You may be able to recreate some of these experiences on your own. It would be easy to turn on the AC in your home or otherwise rehearse in cold spaces. However, it may not be possible to recreate some facets of the experience of the performance space. If this is the case, you can create your own constants across the varied spaces you will rehearse.

For example, let’s say the theater has a very particular smell. You cannot recreate this scent at home. Instead, you could wear a certain lotion or perfume each time you study your lines. This will become the new sensory context the memory of the lines is associated with. A bit Pavlovian, smelling the lotion or perfume will now remind you of the times you’ve previously rehearsed. You can wear this scent when you go to the theater for rehearsals and wear it during the performance– you’ll find it helps anchor yourself into the character and scenes because you have so associated it with the character and scenes.

You can also pair this with other senses. Taste and touch are likely the easiest. Chewing a specific flavor of gum is good example. Chew a unique flavor while you go over your lines at home. Though you probably shouldn’t chew gum in rehearsal, simply chewing a stick on the way to rehearsal and spitting it out before anything begins can be enough to get the taste in your mouth and associated with the rehearsal. You can also wear certain types of clothing or fabrics that will match those of your costumes. For example, the sensation of wearing a corset could be mimicked by wearing a (safely) tight bra or undershirt. Once you begin rehearsing in costume, the feeling of wearing the tight clothing might put yourself back into the context you felt rehearsing in tight clothing.

Even though you perhaps can’t rehearse in the exact conditions of the show, you can create your own conditions and fit them to the show yourself.

When I played Claire in an illegal stage production of The Breakfast Club I wore the same scent of perfume and lotion to every rehearsal. I also sprayed my script with the scent, so that every time I reviewed my lines, the scent was prominent. Coupled with this, I also chewed a specific unique flavor of gum on the way to rehearsals. I would always be sure to wipe off the lotion or scent as much as possible once I was done working, and kept other flavors of gum to change gears later. A year after this performance, when I smell the perfume, my brain instantly goes back to that show, and I still salivate for that flavor of gum!

This is a great way not just to memorize your lines, but also to get into character. Thinking about character motivations and interpretations while surrounding yourself with these sensory cues can turn these sensations into “triggers” for the character. This can also be the basis for some sense memory work– for example, if you apply a certain perfume you associate with sad memories just before going on stage for a sad scene, it might help put you in the proper mindset for the performance.

It is important to note that your sensory context choices must be unique. If you use a taste or scent you are already very familiar with for a character, you’ll probably already have a memory associated with that sense, and it will be less effective. For best results, use a perfume or gum flavor you have never experienced before. This provides you a completely “empty” template upon which to build your sensory context.

I have used this strategy for every big character I’ve played in recent years! I am slowly collecting a wealth of lotions and perfumes that make me instantly nostalgic for specific productions when opened.

To summarize, rehearse in the context in which you will perform, in order to trigger your context dependent memory. This means rehearsing with your physical movements, in similar dress, with similar people, in the rehearsal space under similar conditions to performance as much as possible. However, if this isn’t possible, you can create your own context by introducing certain sensory products like flavors of gum or specific, unique perfume scents, and utilize them every time you practice your lines at home, have a rehearsal, or perform the show. These will help you remember lines and blocking and can also serve as triggers to get you into character.

Try these out for your next show! It works best if you start as early as possible– create context triggers for the role even while preparing for auditions. Then, by the time the show arrives, you’ll completely associate the trigger with the show, character, and process. Hopefully this helps you as much as it has helped me!

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