The Theatre 101 Series is a set of introductory articles meant to explain theatrical concepts and situations to young actors as well as adult theatrical newcomers. View the whole series here.
Many new actors find memorization the most daunting part of the rehearsal process. Lines, choreography, blocking, lyrics, and set and costume changes must be memorized, which proves challenging even for veteran actors. How do veteran actors conquer memorization to be prepared come showtime?
The Importance of Memorization
There’s no way around becoming a master of memorization if you want to perform. Performances simply require remembering too much! While referring to others for help might save you now and then, you won’t always recieve the same lines, blocking, choreography, or vocal parts as others in the cast. Therefore, you must rely on your own memory first and foremost. Luckily, like all skills, memorization is a trainable ability, even if you feel you lack natural aptitude.
Ten Tips for Mastering Memorization
While not every memorization tool will work for everyone, here are a few general tips to keep you on the right path:
- Break everything down. It’s easier to memorize one or two lines at a time than an entire scene, and it’s easier to memorize an 8-count over an entire song. Take your time when memorizing show material. Go piece by piece and ensure you really know one piece of information before moving on to the next!
- Don’t try to cram. Instead of trying to learn hundreds of lines in a few hours, dedicate ten to twenty minutes to a scene at a time. The human attention span is short, so don’t bother trying to cheat biology! You’ll learn more in six short sessions of ten minutes with breaks in between than you will from one long hour of trying to ignore distractions.
- Keep everything in context. It helps to understand the flow of the show before you worry about memorizing individual sections. You’ll find it becomes easier to remember lines, scenes, and songs when you recognize how they fit together. Since memorizing the flow of the show will eventually be necessary anyway, you may as well start working this out while learning lines!
- Remember: Practice is for learning everyone else’s part, not your own. In rehearsal, everyone puts together the sum result of their own individual work. In other words, rehearsal is for collaboration! Learning lines, in contrast, can be done independently. Save the line learning for your own free time. The only exception to this rule: if presented with free time in rehearsal, such as when others are learning blocking or choreography for scenes or songs you aren’t in, please use that time to review! This offers an easy opportunity to practice songs, dances, or lines with the very people you’ll be performing with on stage later.
- Review consistently. Of course, rehearsal offers some opportunity for review, but be sure to review material on your own time as well! This is especially important because rehearsal (likely) won’t be every single day. Reviewing daily is important for speeding up the learning process and for improving retention. If you want to make learning show material easy, work on it every day!
- Get active! Our brains work better when we move. Movement plays a critical role in memorization. Instead of sitting and drilling lines over and over, try practicing blocking while you review lines. Work on your choreography while memorizing song lyrics. This also makes learning less boring!
- Engage your senses. As previously discussed on this blog, the more senses you can associate with a memory, the stronger it will become. While reading lines, speak them aloud so you also hear them. You can also track the words with your finger as you read them– it has been proven that this small action improves retention of reading material.
- Practice the way you will perform. Resist the urge to run lines using a monotone voice, or half-heartedly rehearse choreography. As much as possible, replicate the conditions of the performance while you practice. Give 110% while rehearsing material! This follows the same idea as chewing a specific gum flavor while studying for and taking a test: replicating the conditions in which you practiced helps job your memory of the practiced material. While rehearsing, you could also wear the shoes, costume pieces, or makeup you’ll be wearing during the show. You’ll start to associate the items with the show material you’re trying to learn.
- How to practice material by yourself:
- When learning songs and lyrics: Listen to the song! Try and pick out your vocal part in the original cast recording, or sing along with the track. You can ask your music director if you can make a recording of your voice part in a song so that you can refer back to this recording whenever you need a refresher. As stated above, once you start getting the hang of the words, consider practicing your choreography while you sing, as getting active assists learning.
- When learning choreography: Consider asking to record the choreographer or dance captains performing the dance so you have reference material should your memory falter at home. It might be helpful to practice in front of a mirror or record yourself so you can see what you’re doing. You should know the song you’re dancing to well, so review your music rehearsal work.
- When learning lines: Cover up your lines in your script with a bookmark or scrap piece of paper. Read the line before yours and try to remember your next line. Move the bookmark if you find you can’t remember. If you’d rather speak than read, take an audio recording on your phone. Out loud, begin reading everyone else’s lines. When you get to one of your own, read it slowly in your head, but say nothing. Then move on to the next line that isn’t yours. When you listen back to this recording, you can say your own lines in the silent space. In this way, you can practice with yourself!
- How to practice material with others:
- Ensure you stay on task. Resist the urge to slack off! If you have trouble staying on task for long periods of time, break everything down: pledge to rehearse for 20 minutes uninterrupted before taking a 10-minute break to goof off.
- Rehearse with the people you’ll perform with, if possible. For example, try to run lines with your fellow co-stars rather than your friends or parents. Since you’re replicating the actual conditions of the show, memorization becomes easier.
- Keep each other accountable. If you know a friend in the cast is struggling with lines, invite them to run lines with you so you can both improve. Having friends to help you makes everything easier!
A Sample Process for Learning Lines
It’s good to establish a standard, recurring time to work on show material. Why not practice as soon as you get home from rehearsal? At this time, material you covered in rehearsal will still be fresh in your mind. If this time isn’t convenient for you, consider reviewing on your lunch break, or right before you go to bed. The exact timing doesn’t matter– simply choose a regular time that works for you, and stick with it as much as possible. (However, resist the urge to skip practicing at home if something comes up and you miss your scheduled time! The most important thing is that you practice on a consistent basis, even if not necessarily on a set schedule.)
At the beginning of the rehearsal process, it’s smart to spend some time just reading over the script as a whole and getting to know the show. Read through the entire script multiple times. You might also devote time to listening to the original cast recording or watching videos of the show.
Once you generally have the flow of the plot down, start working on individual songs, scenes, and dances. Work in sections! Try to memorize a few pages per day at most. Each day, go back and review what you did the previous day. If you find yesterday’s show material is a little hazy in your memory, make that your main focus today instead!
Work your way through the script in this way. It helps to mix your methods of memorization now and then. Alternate between running lines alone and with others. Sing with the original cast recording sometimes, and occasionally check to see if you can sing the song a cappella. Mixing it up ensures you know your stuff in every situation, not just the circumstances in which you usually practice.
Once you’ve worked your way through all the material you need to memorize, your job is to review. Take ten minutes every day and go over as much as you can. If you neglect consistent review, you’ll find everything you learned before disappears over time!
Use rehearsal as a test to see how well your independent work has paid off. Any time you stumble on a line or lyric, or forget some blocking or choreography, make note of it to review at home.
By the time the show comes around, you should know the show forwards and backwards, in and out!
My final piece of advice is very important, though it may sound antithetical to everything else in this post: don’t forget to give yourself a break! You won’t be any better off during the show if all your work has made yourself totally sick of it.
Memorization, like all skills, isn’t natural for everyone. Even veteran actors have trouble mastering memorization. If memorization doesn’t come naturally to you, arm yourself with as many tools as possible and remember practice makes perfect! The more you exercise your memory, the stronger it becomes. In time, you’ll find memorizing lines and choreography easier than before.
Questions for Discussion
Looking for a little more insight on memorization? Share this article with some of your theatrical peers and discuss these questions, or respond to this post with answers and join the conversation in the comments:
- What other memorization tips can you give? Do you use any unique tools or strategies?
- What do you feel is your biggest barrier when learning and memorizing show material?
- How can schoolwork, work assignments, and hobbies build memorization skills?
- Performing develops memorization abilities, which are of benefit in both school and the workplace. What other real-work skills does theatre develop?
- How could you use tips provided by this article to improve your own line-learning process? Can you use the same tips to make studying or other tasks easier?
5 thoughts on “Theatre 101: Your Starter Guide to Memorization for Theatre”
While I know I will never be a show, I still know how tricky it is to memorize lines.
I was a theater minor- in acting I, acting II, and Voice and Diction- had to memorize a scene or monologues. I literally rehearsed my lines out loud walking in between classes. I literally wrote down my lines on notecards- basically breaking it up. I literally would not peek at the actual words to see if I actually know these lines. But if it was an actual scene, the front of the notecard would have the final line of the other actor- same thing by seeing if I know the lines and if I don’t look at them.
Memorizing is tricky- to know lines, dancing, blocking, songs, etc—-I feel like this probably would be the hardest when it comes to the swings. They have to literally memorize everything. All because I am a theater minor, I really can appreciate what I am seeing a lot more.
Swings have to work SO hard! I think everyone who says theatre isn’t very difficult should have to be a theatre major for a semester or two, haha.
Actors make it look so easy to the audience, but in reality difficult. I really know how to respect the entire cast- including the ensemble plus understudies if I have one or a swing if there is one.
Here are some of my understudies:
1. Grace Morgan
2. Lisa Karlin
3. Sam Lips
4. Adam Bayjou
5. Mary Kate Morrissey (standby)
6. Kaitlyn Frank
7. Talia Simone Robinson
8. Eymard Cabling
9. Andrew Maughan
I do have an incredible story about understudies. I saw the US Tour of Les Mis twice: both times I had Mary Kate Moore. The first round (2017), she was only part of my ensemble—–I soon found out she was the 1st cover of Fantine.
In 2018, after Mellissa Mitchell left, Mary Kate Moore moved up to secure the main part. I saw Mary Kate Moore as Fantine when she was the main part.
Two other examples: Anthony Festa and Nick Cartell, I originally saw in the ensembles of Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. Later would see them as Jean Valjean and Chris. Before securing those leads, they were understudies for Enjolras and Raoul.
Oh wow, it’s so cool that you got to see those understudies move on to lead roles!
That really does show that you shouldn’t underestimate understudies.