By Mitchell McGuire
"How do you remember all those lines?!!" We've all heard that so often from our family and friends that it is a cliche. The flip side is that in our profession it is expected that you will remember all those lines and further that you are better at remembering lines than "normal" people would be. Usually that is true, but not always. Sometimes we are put into situations where we have trouble or we just can't remember all those lines. Many times we can remember most of the lines, but some lines escape us, leaving us embarrassed and insecure and fearful.
Having trouble memorizing lines is like impotence is for men; we've all had the problem at times, but we don't want anyone to know about it. After all it can actually hurt our chances of being hired next time. It is important to be able to memorize lines, and in these days of the Bottom Line, "rush" is the word of the day, and we had better learn them quick!
Some of the reasons we have trouble are:
• Short rehearsals or no rehearsals
• many re-writes
• no cue-cards allowed
• aging and clogged arteries (One doctor's report says we lose 40% of our capacity to remember with age.)
• smoking (It shrinks the blood vessels lessening blood to the brain.)
• drug interactions
• nerves and fear
• sedentary lifestyle (exercise increases blood flow to the brain.)
• or just a difficult script that is hard to get into the head.
So how do we remember all those lines? Well, I have discovered a technique that works…for all of you save the few who are beyond simple help, such as someone who may have Alzheimer's of another illness that is untreatable. But first a little background on how I stumbled on this technique.
I was hired to do the role of Coles in Other People's Money in Lancaster, PA and later at the Coconut Playhouse in Miami. It wasn't a very large part, but I was in my fifties and I had noticed that learning lines was much more difficult for me. When I was younger I could go into rehearsal and come out fully confident that I would not only know my lines but everyone else in my scenes. Often I was the lead and even then I had little problem with lines.
But while rehearsing and performing in OPM, I was finding that it took me much longer than before. I was the last one to be off book and even then I was shaky. After we opened I still had to look at my script diligently to make sure I reviewed the lines before performing the scenes. Luckily each scene had a break wherein I could review it carefully and I was alright. But it bothered me that through the entire run of five weeks I never felt like I could trust myself to remember the text without reviewing it constantly. It made my performance shallow and distracted me from the reality of the scene. How can you really have any meaningful inner life if you are worried about the lines?
In fact, until I went into rehearsal again with a new cast at the Coconut Grove, I never was comfortable, except after another two weeks of rehearsals in Miami. It was embarrassing and frustrating. More importantly it prevented me from my best work.
I was certainly not alone. A good friend of mine who had a brilliant career, started having memorizing problems and got to the frenzied point where he went up onstage and panicked to the point where he had to be tranquilized before he went on! He subsequently quit being an actor; a real shame since he is so talented.
A friend of mine, who was the line producer on Television's Night Court, told me his major casting problem was when he hired older actors. They would often have trouble learning lines. Since there were extensive rewrites and they shot in front of live audiences the elder actors couldn't easily keep up. It made him reticent in hiring older actors. This is untenable and unnecessary. There is enough ageism in this business without giving them real reasons not to hire us!
Many actors go to Hollywood and after working out there for awhile, are afraid to come back to New York to do theater because they aren't sure they can learn all the lines and perform in front of an audience where you can't say "cut" if you make a mistake. Any limitations we put on our career like that are not good, right?
When we go to the How-to section of Barnes and Noble, what help do we find? Well, there an author named (?) who has written several books on memory, including (?) and (?). In truth most of his books say that if you have to deliver a speech don't memorize it, just go from notes and outlines. Which is correct if you are making a speech to a crowd, but for us this is not an option…unless you are in an "improv" show. The rest of his books only go into remembering facts and names using association techniques, mnemonics, such as remembering someone's name by associating it with how he looks. For instance a man with a large nose whose name is Ed Jones you visualize an editor with large bones…or something like that. Okay for lay people, but we have a whole other set of problems.
No, we have to do the text as written, especially if it is some classic such as Shakespeare. I personally have a bugaboo about doing any play without paraphrasing and try to learn the lines exactly as the playwright intends. This is simply respecting your fellow artists' work. And, yes, even TV and film scripts…if they give you sufficient time to learn them. (See the Sidebar below) To do this we can't rely on simple association tricks or note cards or even outlines.
My Nightmare Job
Sometimes we get into a situation, not of our own doing, that sabotages us into not doing the best job we can. The following incident, which happened 20 years ago, was not due to my inability to memorize lines, (I was not having any problem at this time.) but stupidity on the part of the producers. The result was an embarrassing…no, make that a humiliating experience.)
I auditioned for, and was booked on a regional on-camera spot for a now defunct wild animal park in New Jersey. The shoot was the next day and the budget was so low they wouldn't even ship us to the New Jersey park, they decided to shoot it in Central Park's Sheep Meadow. The Casting Person at the ad agency, (In those days they actually had casting people at the agency.) told me they were still working on the script so would not have one for me to look at until the shoot tomorrow. There were no fax machines in those days to have them fax me a copy as soon as they finished their job. I foolishly thought that they must know that I need time to memorize the lines and would take that into account. Wrong again, Kimosabe. The next day I called the same casting gal and was told that all the copies were on the location and my call was not till 11AM so why don't I just show up and get the copy. I did.
Since my two then teenage daughter were in town from Michigan and had never seen me in action, I invited them to watch from the sidelines. We arrived and I was rushed into makeup. A large crowd had already gathered behind a roped off area too close for my comfort.
While sitting in a chair getting makeup applied I asked if I could have a script. They seemed surprised that I didn't have one and ran off to get one. When I looked at it I realized it was me talking the whole 30 second spot with no cut-aways. I immediately assumed that there would be cue cards. But, no. The director, whose last name was the plural version of his first, told me that the camera was far away and so it would "see" the cue cards. I looked and it was indeed ridiculously far away; why I'm not sure. Probably the only lens they could afford to rent.
So I poured over the script intensely and sooner than you could say, " Now", I was doing my first take. After two sentences I made a mistake and the auteur yelled "cut" and came over to me, put his arm around me while walking us a few feet away from the crowd and said, "Come on! Everybody's watching!" I knew right then I was alone in this deep water.
We proceeded, and after similar "mistakes" three teen boys with their bikes and their PF Flyers, started heckling me.
"Hey Man, how did you get this job? Is your dad in the Mafia? Let me up there, I can do it better than him."
I was not amused. Then it all became slightly dreamlike. The crew and Mr. Director pretending that there was no heckling going on. No one said a word to the jerks as they continued taking turns with more insults such as,
" You're so stupid, so why did they hire you? You're a funny looking guy too." It was like getting my own personal John Simon review, out-loud, live and in-person. These guys were savvy though; they knew not to talk during a take. They simply waited for my next gaff. I never let them down.
After many more takes and incessant nasty comments, I did something I have regretted ever since. I lost it. I charged them screaming, ready to do battle with all of them; no longer caring about my daughters watching, not concerned with my safety, only wanting to shut these creeps up and restore my lost dignity.
Suddenly the crew awakened and blessedly stopped me from my headlong charge. Then the director and other heretofore passive strangers, gathered around me to calm me down and others went over and asked the three wise men to shut up…please?) It worked. They did. I thought sure they'd be waiting for me when the shoot was over, but they must have lost interest and moved on… to another shoot, perhaps.
After 49 takes (!)I got it all said and in 28 seconds. The commercial never ran, thank Heaven, and the park went out of business. I immediately started thinking seriously about voice-overs as an alternative to the on-camera scene.
Shortly after returning to the City from Miami, I joined up with The New Group, Scott Elliott's then actor's repertory company, and started "working out" with them. We eventually started planning showcase productions, but when they tried to get the rights to do Faith Healer by Brian Friel, Scott was told, no. So he decided to do a private workshop of it with an invited audience of friends. Scott, an actor, was to direct his first play ever. He asked me to do Frank the Faith Healer, and I happily agreed. It is a great part in a great play. The trouble was we were scheduled to open in less than three weeks, and I had two huge 45 minute monologues to learn!
I was distraught. I wanted to do it; knew I had to do it; and I knew after OPM that I would have to learn lines in a new way. It was then that I was to discover a unique way of learning lines that enabled me to be flawless and confident in my part; helping me make an acting breakthrough that has helped me find the road to confidant line learning and enhanced my already developed acting skills.
(Note to the Editor: I suggest that here is where the article should end and continue in the next issue.)
Part Two of The Actor's Memory
The first thing I did was stop reading anything other than the script; no newspapers, books or plays. Learning lines became my sole passion. Mind you I didn't just memorize words or phrases. I of course thought deeply about the whys of the characters words; his motivations and needs and his inner monologue. This is just logical for any good actor worth his salt. But I didn't limit myself to studying at rehearsals or even just at home. On buses and subways or even In my car, I would play tapes of the monologues.
The tape recorder is a marvelous tool, I find. I recorded the entirety of my speeches, and as rehearsals progressed, I re-recorded them to keep up with the new interpretations I and Scott came up with so as not to listen to past sounds that no longer had relevance.. I would listen to the recorder and do my lines quietly on the subway or wherever; then releasing the pause button to see if I had it exactly right on playback. If I had it wrong, even a little bit, I redid the entire passage, reciting the lines before I heard them o the recorder, then listening to them to see if I had them right. When I had that paragraph learned, I moved on. Amazingly, the next time I went over the passage, I was still making mistakes and would have to redo the passage again. It was frustrating, but I learned that the brain sometimes needs longer to memorize some passages. The important thing to remember though is that it CAN AND WILL eventually remember.
At times where I didn't have the tape recorder or times where I was bored using it, I would carry a 4x6 card with my script and test myself on lines and try not to cheat by looking at my lines ahead of reciting them. In my car, where I didn't have a pause button I would try to say my lines with the tape. If I made a mistake I would rewind and do it again.
I tried to get people to cue me and found that to be helpful as well. It seemed important to get them to watch carefully and not let me "get away" with a line that was close to what was written, but to make me do it exactly right. Of course some people are better than others in cueing so try to coach this helpful person in doing it in a way that helps you. Some people, Uta Hagen among them, feel that one should not let a person act as they cue you. I feel that anyone who wants to throw me something different is welcome as it helps me see alternatives in how I respond. Even onstage I welcome different deliveries from partners since that keeps the performance alive and fresh. If it messes up the general meaning of the play or the directors vision, then we have a problem. Generally though one can and should invite creative instinct into ones work, I think.
Slowly I learned the lines for Faith Healer quite well, but I was still struggling nearly until the last week of rehearsals. One memorable evening Scott, I and the stage manager were working and I was off-book but having trouble with lines and calling out "line" so often that Scott said, "I'm sorry, but I can't work with you when you don't know your lines. Go home and study them and we'll rehearse tomorrow. I was upset and said, No, Scott, you are the director and you have to sit through this! I need you to be here and I need this tension to get me to the next level here! I need to feel that I can struggle with these lines while you are watching and so you can't leave!" I was quite worked up about it and I don't even think I knew why, but I knew I wanted him there. I was also PO'ed that he wanted to separate himself from my problem. I think I flet that we were all in this boat together, or at least I wanted to think that, and so he had to worry this thing through with me.
Scott stayed, to his eternal credit, and something about this exchange had a profound effect on the next part of this rehearsal. I got very emotional about the material and what it all meant. Faith Healer is a metaphorical play about how the creative process happens, and how it sometimes doesn't happen and where does it all come from anyhow? God? Luck? Talent? Anyway I started to feel everything about the script in ways I had never experienced so deeply before, and it continued for the rest of the rehearsals and the run. It was extraordinary and wonderful. Scott was thrilled as were others in the New Group and most people in the invited audience. What had made the difference?
Some of difference was due to the greatness of the script for sure. Some was due to some recent coaching I had experienced with fellow actor and director, Sam Schacht. He helped me identify my talent and deepen it, giving me tools to use in enhancing my performance and interpretation. (When Sam saw my performance he came backstage in tears and said, "You got it Mitch! Oh I'm so proud of you. You were so great!") But a large part of the difference was because of my grasp of the text which enabled me to think my character's thoughts and feelings to the fullest without worry about the lines.
Certainly, in the moment of conflict with Scott, realizing that I was in danger of losing him, I stopped looking for the exact right word and focused on the truth of the lines and performed the part. I let myself risk a few mistakes to show him where I was headed with this. Later I perfected the script in subsequent private studying times.
Didn't I have moments in the performance where I messed up here and there? Sure, but I was confidant that I knew the lines through the moments and inner thoughts and that I could get through it with my character intact. I sailed through every performance and continued to give, what I considered to be, the best acting of my career. Subsequently the method of acting and memorization has stuck with me and inspired me nightly in all my work since then.
I certainly don't believe that my way of learning lines is the "only way." But I do believe that finding an alternative to learning lines was essential for me in my current state. That is, in my inability to memorize the way I used to and my panic at going on stage without a firm grip on my character's words. I believe that there are many actors out there who can and should re-examine their method of learning if they are starting to have trouble. For those of you who have given up live performance or stopped acting due to memory problems, I say try again, and this time pull out all the stops. Maybe try some of my techniques as well as others, and you will be amazed at how you can learn lines.