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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5 Nonfiction Reading Recommendations for Theatre People

Because it’s the subject in life I’m most passionate about, theatre is nearly the only subject on which I actively seek out and enjoy nonfiction. Some might say I’m just growing up and discovering a more sophisticated taste in books, but fiction is no less refined than nonfiction, and I’d make a list on theatre-related fiction recommendations if I’d read more of it. (Maybe soon!) Regardless of your ideas on the sophistication merit of nonfiction versus fiction, these are five nonfiction books anyone can appreciate, even if nonfiction isn’t your usual gig. For the sake of the less enthusiastic nonfiction readers, I will order this list following a sliding scale of “reads like a novel” to “reads like an essay” and let you decide for yourself where reading will become a chore. I really encourage everyone to try these five books, even if they intimidate you– they’re worth the struggle!

1. Without You:  A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent by Anthony Rapp

This memoir reads like a novel about the first toddling steps of the musical Rent, and I love it to pieces. As a huge Rent fan, I geeked out over almost every page. You learn about the true stories of real people involved in the original try-outs and OBC of the show, unfolding alongside personal events in Anthony Rapp’s life. Just like the musical, there is equal measure joy, sorrow, and meditation on LGBT+ issues, woven together by hard reality and the drive to connect to others through our passions. If you are a Rent fan, this is absolute required reading. If not, I advise you to read anyway– you may find more to take away than you expected.

2. Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor by Mickey Rapkin

Half history lesson on the famous performing arts camp and half reality show unfolding in its midst, Theater Geek is supremely fun and validating to read. The camp is a haven for those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their passion for theatre. While high school theatre kids get a bad rap for being dramatic, ambitious, and larger-than-life, Stagedoor Manor welcomes and worships these qualities, and promises unparalleled training and potential fame to the best of the best. Rapkin weaves the perilous history of the little camp that could turned Broadway pipeline with the true dramas of young actors preparing to perform with all they’ve got in the camp’s most demanding productions. A page-turner that keeps you in true suspense while delivering triumphantly, lovingly never-dry history on a camp we’re all too old to attend– but wish we could go to, anyway.

3. The Actor’s Art and Craft: William Esper Teachers the Meisner Technique by William Esper and Damon DiMarco

If you’re looking to learn something about acting, I would recommend this book in a heartbeat. The Actor’s Art and Craft is like being a fly on the wall in one of the most incredible acting classrooms in the world. It’s a relatively easy read, with all of the acting advice given in narrative form through a fictionalized re-telling of Esper’s tutelage. It is inspiring and deeply informative, and full of heart in a surprising way. You read this book because it’s interesting on its own and realize you’ve learned more than you bargained for along the way. A fantastic primer on Meisner technique and a shining beacon for anyone interested in the art of acting.

4. The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods by Richard Brestoff

An unconventional read that provides a basic background on the greatest actors and acting teachers in history– essential reading for anyone looking to learn more about acting. Chapters provide history as well as sample lessons on the beliefs of each teacher. The wide sampling of ideas provides ample room for further reading, while also giving readers a basic understanding of many viewpoints on acting. This is a fantastic starting point for those looking to deepen their knowledge of acting as a craft. It is shockingly dense and yet surprisingly easy to read– you could read it in a day if you wanted, though you’d hardly get the full weight of the content if you rushed through it so fast! Take your time with this one and absorb as much as you can. It is well worth it.

5. The Empty Space by Peter Brook

Undoubtedly the most involved read on this list, and yet the shortest. Essentially a set of four essays on theatre as a whole– what it is, and what we do with it. This book provides a vocabulary for feelings about performances I previously had no words for, and lights a way to creating lively and inspiring theatre going forward. Reading it has fundamentally changed my understanding of theatre. If you are passionate about theatre, it is required reading that may shake you to your core.

10 Ways to get an Education in Theatre Outside of College

A college education in theatre is an incredible opportunity. However, for many reasons, it’s not always attainable. With the current cost of college, any degree should be closely examined for its post-graduation worth. Though a theatre degree is as worthwhile as any other degree, the capital required to earn the degree is a huge barrier for many, with often uncertain returns.

Whether you cannot afford a degree, or are in the process of preparing for a degree, it is necessary that those seeking education take initiative. In today’s society, the ability to learn on your own is paramount. There are many resources available waiting to be taken advantage of by those committed to their own growth!

Here are 10 suggestions for taking your education on theatre into your own hands.

1. Learn on the job.

This is hopefully the most obvious way one can learn about theatre– do more of it. I place this first on the list because I believe it is also the most important. Do as much theatre as you can, in as many places as you can, in as many ways as you can. Branch out! While it’s good to determine favorite production companies or theaters to work with, and the connections derived from frequent work together are highly important in an industry as reliant on who you know as theatre, it’s also in your best interest to see a gamut of styles, atmospheres, and conditions. Seek as many different locations as you can, and seek varied work there. If community theatre is your usual gig, consider going to some professional-level auditions. If you normally act, consider trying directing or stage managing. Even if all of these experiences don’t lead to big roles or opportunities, the opportunity to evaluate the experience and use it as wisdom later is invaluable.

I must absolutely emphasize that any engagement with theatre in any way is a success. Usher for shows. Take tickets for shows. Be a carpenter, costumer, or props master. Act in the ensemble. Go out for auditions for ensemble and get cut. As you work your way into more roles in theatre, you will broaden your skillset, build your resume, and create for yourself a more holistic understanding of the art. This is a fun and free (maybe even paid!) way to learn!

2. Go to classes, lectures, and private lessons.

The very same classes offered at $500 a credit to college students are often offered much cheaper through other means. Search your area for opportunities like classes, lectures, talkbacks, seminars, readings, and private lessons. Community colleges are cheaper and less commitment than large universities, and often offer “non-credited” classes to the public body. Some performing arts companies and theaters offer classes on the side, and private voice and speech teachers are usually easy to track down, depending on your area. Local Facebook events are a fantastic way to search for these opportunities! If you struggle to find anything nearby, “webinars” and skype lessons can also be beneficial.

It’s important to remember that some classes aren’t going to be as good as others. Be wary of taking anything as gospel in these classes. Unless it really, personally works for you, it simply may not be your style. Add it to your personal bank of information and move along if that’s the case. However, remember that an important part of education is keeping yourself open to possibilities– even if you’re skeptical, remember to search for meaning and use in every opportunity.

Speaking of keeping your mind open, remember that there are a variety of skills connected to theatre, and I want you to dip your toes into as many areas of theatre as possible. Therefore, a community college class in welding or carpentry totally counts here! Any way you expand your horizons is never wasted.

One on one classes in voice are so beneficial to anyone interested in musical theatre, I heartily recommend them whether you are currently in theatre school or not. Find a voice teacher you love and never let go!

3. Read, read, read

Reading is a great way to learn, especially if you’re limited on time, monetary resources, or mobility. Nonfiction can be a little dry, but when you’re passionate about the subject, it becomes easier– and learning to read and understand nonfiction is a valuable skill! Check your local libraries for books on or related to theatrical arts. If this fails, you can also seek ebooks. Scribd.com is a great resources for ebooks, for a small monthly fee– much cheaper than individual purchases. You can also find books heavily discounted on Amazon if you’re lucky– I bought Anthony Rapp’s memoir on his Rent experience, Without Youfor $0.01 (plus $3.49 shipping) through Amazon. Shop around! Of course, you can also buy books full price at bookstores, but I always recommend thrifting before going for the gusto.

If you’re absolutely diametrically opposed to nonfiction, there’s hope: reading plays and scripts is also beneficial to your growth! Again, consider seeking these cheaply before purchasing them full-price. Scripts are often easy to find online.

You can also consider taking out subscriptions to magazines or news services related to theatre!

4. Use online resources

Alt title for this point: “Duh, use the internet, you goof.”

There are quite literally infinite educational resources online. YouTube, podcasts, blogs, and Facebook groups have, at times, done more for my education than anything else. Best of all– they’re typically completely free.

Seriously, if you need a resource for anything, you can bet your bottom dollar you can find it for free online. Want to learn how to work the archaic light board at the high school where you’re volunteering? Great news, here’s a complete YouTube tutorial and a copy of the user manual that the school lost the instant they installed it. Want to learn how to sew costumes? Here’s a thousand free downloadable templates with step-by-step instructions in the readme file. Don’t know much about theatre history? Here’s a twice-weekly podcast and a blog that’s been active since 2008 written by a PhD holder.

Do yourself a favor right now and google any topic related to theatre you want to learn about. Right now. It’s free and easy and fuller than any library you can imagine. Go wild.

Apps can also be highly useful in this department!

5. Seek employment

If you’re lacking the free time and capital to attend classes and volunteer your time for rehearsals, seeking a paying job even tangentially related to theatre is a great move for your wallet and career.

Available jobs will often deal with the business and customer service side of theatre more than the artistic fulfillment side. As I’ve already established, this is all useful to your education, and since it’s connected to your passion, it’s easier to stomach than retail or food service in terms of jobs requiring entry-level skills. Even if you can’t find a job in a theater, there are a lot of jobs where you can flex theatre skills– “Princess Parties”, where actors dress as princesses for children’s birthday parties, Renaissance Festival work, and haunted house gigs are popular paid acting opportunities among my theatre friends. Anything requiring public speaking is also generally of your benefit.

Jobs in technical theatre are usually readily available as well. Join your area’s technical theatre job-seeking Facebook group. Stagehands and riggers are almost always in demand, especially for concerts and music events.

Keep an ear out, and make those connections! You never know where a seemingly insignificant job opportunity can turn into a better one.

6. Create a study group

If you have a lot of friends interested in theatre, there’s nothing stopping you from getting together to learn. Start a book club and read plays together! Do table reads of your favorite shows! Critique each others’ audition songs! Start an unofficial improv troupe! Possibilities are endless as long as you are all committed and willing to learn.

7. Practice skills on your own

Theatre is a team sport, so solo learning can be a little antithetical. Further, having the input of others is often very beneficial, and at times crucial, to your growth. However, there are a lot of tangential, useful skills that can be practiced entirely on your own.

Think about things that are relevant to theatre. Being physically in shape is important, as is being flexible. In musical theatre, basic piano and music reading abilities are useful. The ability to analyze characters and scripts gets easier with practice. These are all skills you can flex on your own.

8. See more theatre

Seeing theatre is just as important as being in theatre to growth as a performer. Similar to the first point, see as much of it as possible, in as many places as possible. See school theatre. See community theatre. See touring broadway companies and one-person shows in coffee shops. Go to improv shows and voice recitals. See shows you love and shows you hate and shows you’ve never heard of. See classic Greek plays and contemporary rock musicals.

Don’t be afraid to be a critic. While airing negative opinions about every performance you see is unlikely to net you friends, and is a quick way to get your name out there in a rather bad way, thinking about what you did and didn’t like about every performance is invaluable. Having an opinion is great! Just maybe keep your thoughts to yourself. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

9. (Social) Network

If you’re doing and seeing and auditioning for as many shows as possible in as many places as possible as well as taking classes, as I’ve advised, you’re probably doing okay in this department already. Theatre is an industry where who you know is especially useful to you, and you never know when connections may come in handy.

More importantly, I’m also a huge proponent of “learning by osmosis”: simply immersing yourself in a culture and letting it wash over you is a great way to learn. Surround yourself with conversations about and related to theatre, even if you don’t fully understand all of it. Social media is a great way to do this. Follow Twitter pages and Tumblr blogs and join Facebook groups! Especially feel free to follow groups/pages/people posting about things you don’t know much about. If you’re an actor, join a high school theatre teacher group. If you’re a stage manager, follow pages handing out vocal tips. Taking in information through passive Facebook-feed scrolling is an easy way to expand upon your knowledge.

Also included in this point: get out there, people! Go to meet-ups, conferences, conventions. Most importantly, and most easily, go to your cast parties and company galas! I’m not encouraging you to schmooze, but you never know where rubbing elbows with the right people might lead you.

10. Do your research

This is a bit of a cheat-point, since it’s tangentially connected to every other point, but the best possible thing you can do for your education is explore your options. Find out what’s available to you. Seek out local theaters and theatre people. Find free PDFs of books. Read news articles and blog posts. Watch documentaries. Get into conversations and debates and disagreements with actor friends. There are possibilities for growth in literally everything you are doing already– explore those possibilities. Figure out how to use them to your advantage!

Bonus point: You’re never done learning

This is less of a “way to learn” than it is a word of caution: make yourself an expert on as much as you can, and then, once you’re an expert, throw all of your assumptions away and seek to learn from new experts. Seek feedback on everything you do, even from people who know less than you. Learn about stuff you know nothing about, learn about new ways of doing things you’ve resigned to habit. Keep learning, and never rest on your laurels.

We live in an age where information has never been easier to find. We also live in an age where education prices are astronomical and the cost of living rises every day. The resources you want and need are out there– you need only to track them down.