Why Actors Are So Brillig At Memorizing Lines

One of the most common questions performers are asked after a show is, how do you remember all those lines? In a short piece on the MIT Press Reader site, John Seamon writes that the process is rarely one that involves rote memorization.

Repeating items over and over, called maintenance rehearsal, is not the most effective strategy for remembering. Instead, actors engage in elaborative rehearsal, focusing their attention on the meaning of the material and associating it with information they already know. Actors study the script, trying to understand their character and seeing how their lines relate to that character.

Similarly, when psychologists Helga and Tony Noice surveyed actors on how they learn their lines, they found that actors search for meaning in the script, rather than memorizing lines. ..Script lines are carefully analyzed to understand the character’s motivation. This deep understanding of a script is achieved by actors asking goal-directed questions, such as “Am I angry with her when I say this?” Later, during a performance, this deep understanding provides the context for the lines to be recalled naturally, rather than recited from a memorized text.

This approach isn’t too far from techniques people are taught for memorizing lists of things. Given the movie title, A Lion In Winter, someone might picture Simba from Disney’s The Lion King in the snow. Memorizing lines requires a more sophisticated process of associations and context creation, but the basic principles are the same.

My own process of memorizing Lewis Carroll’s decades ago is connected with the Muppet Show’s particular interpretation of the piece. Images from the show still bubble up in my mind when I recite it now.

*Yes, I know that my use of brillig in the title is incorrect according to Humpty Dumpty.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment