Memorizing Efficiently- Monologues, Scenes, Songs

Like many others, I find myself in the throws of finals week- envying my friends who are already on summer vacation. As the assignments stack up, so does the amount I had/have to memorize (especially for my performance classes). One piece in particular was proving difficult, The Nightmare Song. The name was a fitting one, as I sat down to memorize it and found that, after a few hours, I hadn’t retained a single line. Panic set in, exacerbated by the mocking tick of the clock in the corner of my room. I needed a new plan of attack- and fast.

As I was slowly enveloped deadline-induced hysteria, I figured that Gilbert and Sullivan might be the end of me. However, I took a deep breath, left that ‘finals week panic’ at the door, and composed myself. With brief clarity I managed to start working again- this time employing several effective memorization tactics that had helped me in projects prior. A little while later, I was back on track and The Nightmare Song ceased to be all that nightmarish. I want to drop some of those memorization tactics here, in hopes that they may help others with text memorization (of course, these tips can also be useful for non-performance memorization needs as well). Here’s the run through: know what you’re saying, hands-eyes-ears-mouth, sleep on it.

Know What You’re Saying

It goes without saying that, as an actor, specificity is your friend. My major courses have stressed the importance of this time and time again and for good reason. When you don’t know the intention behind your text, neither will the audience. Additionally, specificity is integral to memorization. It will always be easier to remember text if you have an understanding of it. That means knowing exactly what each word means and why you’re saying it.

For instance, let’s look at the first stanza of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:

” ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe. “

Most of these words are absolute gibberish (which is part of what makes it so damn fun). Still, if you attack this poem without defining that gibberish you’re going to have a much tougher go of it. If we assign each one of these words a meaning we can better follow the story that we are trying to tell, subsequently helping us remember the text. This is why it is easier to recall song lyrics or lines from a book than it is to remember phone numbers. One has meaning to us, the other is a string of numbers.

Jabberwocky is an extreme example, oftentimes the text we’ll have to memorize isn’t comprised of imaginary words. Still, the principle applies. Why does my character say this line? What action are they playing? What is their objective? What spurred them to say this? Understanding these things about the text you intend to perform is non-negotiable. Knowing the answer to those questions is essential to being specific for an audience, but it will also greatly aid in memorization.

Hands, Eyes, Ears, Mouth

The brain is a complicated computer and works in very strange, multifaceted ways. At any given moment, it is absorbing information and sorting through what is essential to keep and what it can afford to throw away. It absorbs information through our senses and, depending on who you are, some senses are more apt to help you retain information than others. When memorizing we need to do two things: use all of the tools at our disposal and take things bit by bit.

The first is simple. People learn in various ways. For instance, I tend to connect with physical learning. As such, I try to memorize text by taking a line and then writing it down (while speaking each word out loud). Other people may be more auditory inclined- so they may give their text a listen. If one doesn’t work for you, try another. We’ve been granted several senses that can be useful for memorization so there is no need to shoot ourselves in the foot by sticking with something that doesn’t resonate with us.

Secondarily, large chunks of text can be overwhelming. It can be productive to attack large pieces through smaller, digestible bits. When dividing up text for memorization purposes, don’t just arbitrarily cut it up. Find through-lines of thought so that you are memorizing with the cohesive intentions. If you don’t, you’ll run the risk of becoming discombobulated when stitching it back together.

Let’s look at a piece of Romeo’s monologue from Romeo and Juliet. After dividing up the through-lines of thought, it might look something akin to this:

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

(This may be a nice place to break, as Romeo identifies Juliet and compares her to the sun, then he shifts gears)

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

(This might be another place to break, as he stops talking about her beauty and the overrated nature of virginity to directly identify her)


It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!… “

(And so on…)

Where you break up the dialogue to aid in memorization is entirely subjective, but I’ve always find it helpful to divide up the thought groups based on idea or topic changes so that the text feels fluid when it is pieced back together.

Sleep On It

This last one is pretty simple but it works wonders. Sleep on it. Work on memorizing and then review it before bed. While you’re sleeping, that information will get rearranged and cemented, I promise. There have been a plethora of times when I’ve worked tirelessly on something, stumbling on nearly every word, only to wake up the next day with the entire piece fluidly memorized. There is a different sort of clarity when you step away and give your mind the opportunity to organize itself.

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