The character Hamlet has over 1,400 lines. That’s a lot of memorizing. While not every role is Hamlet, memorization is key to your success as an actor. It’s important to memorize every word exactly (verbatim memorization) since most playwrights don’t like it when you take liberties with their words.
How do actors pull off these amazing feats of memorization? There are quite a few techniques that work, though all take hard work.
Set goals and deadlines
Just like any other activity with strict deadlines (you have to go on, you know), goals and deadlines are going to be a big motivator. Reward yourself when you reach a goal, so you’ll be more likely to do it again.
Know the meaning of your lines
It’s tough to memorize something you don’t quite understand. If you are performing a classic (like Shakespeare), some of the lines, soliloquies and monologues can be complex and filled with double meanings. Study up on your lines before you do anything else. Decide on their meanings for you. You’ll find it’s easier than to memorize these lines as they will feel much more familiar.
Remember, too, that you are memorizing not only to know the line verbatim, but to also deliver it to another actor in a conversation. Knowing the meaning then will give you the context you need to deliver your memorized line the right way.
Repetition is at the core
Memorizing your lines exactly is going to take lots and lots of repetition. I’ll repeat: lots and lots of repetition. Your goal is to get these words cemented into your short-term memory as quickly as possible. To do this and not drive yourself insane, there are many devices actors use to break up the monotony.
Speak your lines out loud
Yes, memorization happens in your head, but your mouth needs to get used to saying these words. In fact, you are forming the habit of saying these words when you speak them out loud.
Write out your lines
A terrific way to repeat your lines is to simply write them out over and over again. With this technique you are also using multiple senses, so your brain is more engaged and your lines will be memorized more quickly.
Record your lines and listen to them and repeat them during your commute
Again, this technique uses multiple senses, so you’ll learn your lines quicker. This is a great tip, too, because it lets you use every moment of spare time you have to memorize. Especially if your commute is on public transit. It can be embarrassing to speak out loud or mouth your words in front of total strangers. When you can listen to them using a digital recorder (or saving the files from a digital recorder onto your smart phone), you can sit back and continue to learn in any scenario.
Break down your monologues into beats
Sometimes when a monologue is huge, your best solution is chunking, or what actors call breaking the monologue down into beats. These beats help you better understand the monologue’s context, and they give you like-minded mini-bites of text to work on instead of a big wall of text.
Read through your lines (or listen to it) right before bed
While sleeping, your mind does a lot of hard work for you, especially with making relationships between unrelated words. You’ll find that just reading the play every night will make your memorization goals much easier.
Get your fellow actors involved as a team
Speed reads and walk-throughs are essential for your memorization. Remember, you are not only memorizing your lines, but also your cues to say them. Become familiar with the lines surrounding your lines. Get used to the entrances and actually walk the stage where you will be. Have actor cue parties where you repeat (and even act out) the tough moments in the play. Here you are switching from rote learning (lone repetition) to active learning (you are up and living the lines), and it’s where you begin really owning your character.