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!


A Deeply Personal Analysis of Company

Company is one of my favorite musicals. As a big Sondheim fan, I can comfortably say it’s my favorite of his works. 

One of my favorite things about it is the fact that I’m still not sure I get it. In fact, it seems to change in meaning every time I listen.

The first time I saw it, I knew next to nothing about it. I had previously learned the song “Another Hundred People” as a potential audition song for a show once. I listened to the title song on the way to the performance in some half-hearted effort to get the basic lay of the land and recognized “Not Getting Married Today” from the Glee cast cover. The rest was a mystery. I was riveted, and loved it, and at the end I said, “so this is a musical about a guy whose friends are fucking with his head and ruining his life.”

Then I drove home and cried inconsolably while listening to “Being Alive” because I was majorly depressed and incredibly lonely at the time and some part of my brain connected this song about love to the friends I was yearning for, and it broke me. “Make me alive / make me confused / mock me with praise / let me be used / vary my days / but alone is alone / not alone…”

I listened to it on and off for a few weeks after that. I was working out my interpretation of it then— his friends aren’t fucking with him, they’re trying to help him. It’s a show about friendship. Sort of. But also it’s not. And his friends totally are fucking his life up, sometimes, accidentally. Actually, do his friends even like him? Okay, scratch everything.

Right around this time I started dating a girl. She was really sweet and nice, and I thought I could totally have a relationship with her. I kind of wasn’t sure. All the pieces were there, and I even enjoyed hanging out with her, but I just never felt the way I always thought you were supposed to feel about people you’re dating. I was listening to the show, and I thought, this is what the show’s really about, throwing yourself into relationships, giving it a try, letting love happen. “Hey, buddy, don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be!”

I gave the relationship a try and we broke up two months later.

So I listened to it some more, thought about it some more. I noticed the recurring theme of duality in the show. I think I’m onto something with that one for sure. I went through the show song by song and broke down how each song was like a self-contained lesson in polar opposites. In the title song, Bobby loves his friends, but also his friends are suffocating him, and he says marriage is what life’s all about, but he loves the “no strings, good times” of good old-fashioned friendship. In “The Little Things you do Together”, relationships are fun but also hellholes of arguing and the best thing you can do is get a divorce. “Sorry-Grateful” is like an entire thesis on the subject: “You’re sorry-grateful / regretful-happy … which has nothing to do with / all to do with her”. I could break this down for literally every song in the show, but I’ll save the words— just think about it yourself, if you’re familiar. Some of the songs are directly foiling each other, too. “Have I got a Girl for You” directly contrasts with “Someone is Waiting”— one’s about setting Bobby up with a lady and how marriage sucks, and the other is about how Bobby doesn’t want set up with a lady and there must be a perfect one out there to marry. The act 1 finale, “Marry me a Little” is a foil to the act 2 finale, “Being Alive”— while the former is about how Bobby is ready for a relationship as long as it’s easy-breezy, the latter is about being ready for a relationship as long as someone is there to “put you through hell” and be there for you, as much as you’re there for them. And then there’s the characters themselves. Do his friends hate him or love him? Who knows! Do they hold him in contempt or pity him? Hard to say! Is Bobby happy with them? Absolutely, and also absolutely not. The show at its core is a contradiction: It’s a story about love without being a love story.

Pleased with my analytic efforts, I kept those thoughts in my back pocket and left them to stew a bit longer. I finally gave the female version a listen. Bobby becomes Bobbie, bachelor becomes bachelorette. I loved the concept, but was turned off when I actually started listening. Seemingly a small change- but it changes the entire show. I was unsure if I liked this change. The issues became entirely different. This is especially clear in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” where a brief dialogue break wherein the female singers would shower Bobby with impassioned but largely trivial insults became instead a trio of male singers showering Bobbie with cries like “that time of the month?” and “dirty feminist!” A new song “Tick Tock” adds to Bobbie’s plate the complex layer of running out of time to have children and start a family. “Have I got a Girl for You” describes a potential hook-up to Bobby as “dumb”, and “Have I got a guy for You” describes the same (genderswapped) hook-up to Bobbie as “smart”. The descriptions of what Bobby envisions in the perfect woman is different from how Bobbie describes her perfect man in “Someone is Waiting”. Bobby: “My blue-eyed Sarah, warm Joanne / Sweet Jenny, loving Susan / Crazy Amy.” Bobbie: “My loyal Harry, loving Paul / Cute Jamie, happy Peter / Handsome Larry”. The only similarity between the two, notably, is the word “loving”. These differences are small, but manage to create something totally different. Call me dramatic, but it felt like an entire other show— all of these changes had implications I wasn’t sure how to parse.

Shortly after this development, something else happened in my romantic life. I had the opportunity to enter into a relationship with a guy. Super sweet, getting out of a bad situation, had a ton of love to give. And while I wanted to jump in, something was stopping me— some gnawing instinct saying “this isn’t quite right.” It’s not that I wasn’t into it, I was, and I wanted the relationship. I was coming out of a bad situation of my own, too, and I wanted the comfort and camaraderie and affection and yet something was holding me back. 

One night, while I was turning the prospect of this relationship over and over in my mind, I took the long way home from a rehearsal and listened to the female version again.

And suddenly this version made sense.

It was totally different, but also it wasn’t. In fact, in print, very few of the situations are different at all. The obvious difference lies in the gender swapping, but the rest are hard to verbalize beyond “men’s problem’s” and “women’s problems”. Ironically, the problems are basically exactly the same. Bobby: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. Bobbie: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. They’re the exact same problems, but shaded so slightly differently. Bobby and Bobbie both convince their Steward(ess) significant others to stay in “Barcelona”, and both are shocked when they succeed, and both cry out “oh god!” when they realize they’re stuck with their hookup another day. And yet, these situations feel so markedly different. I think of the women I know who get stuck with lame dudes, and it feels so different from the men I know who get stuck with lame girls— perhaps I’m lingering on this point too long, but it’s just so hard to explain these nuances. There’s something to be said about what women expect from men in relationships and what men expect from women in relationships, but when you get down to that, too, the answers are more or less the same on cold, unfeeling paper: love, sex, happiness, comfort. Yet, every instance of these things are slightly different in concept to these two genders, just by virtue of what it means to live and be raised as one of these two genders. 

It’s totally different. And yet, really, it’s not that different at all. We all want the same things, but we don’t, really. There’s that duality idea again.

Company, about Bobby, made me decide to leap into a relationship with a girl. Company, about Bobbie, made me reconsider leaping into a relationship with a guy. Maybe I just knew better the second time around– or maybe I missed out big time.

I’m still not sure I get Company. I think the easiest, and most complete interpretation is this: life is hard. Romance is hard. Shit is weird and love is complicated. Your friends are great and also are what is holding you back. Finding the right person is almost impossible and even when you do find them, it’s never going to be perfect, but it’s still better than being alone, unless it’s not. Trying to weigh all the pros and cons of everything will leave you in the dust, so give in to the unknown. But when you give into the unknown in romance you’ll probably end up screwing some less-than-perfect people, but that’s kind of okay too. This seems like an anticlimactic point to arrive at, but it’s truthful, and it’s real. I don’t know if my life experiences actually changed my interpretation, or if this was coincidence entirely, but they felt connected, somehow. Maybe this is a show you just need to live a while to really understand. 

I don’t know if I really get it at all, but I love it. 

I guess that’s alright. That’s pretty much the show in a nutshell, anyway.