ARTICLE – Memorization Lessons for Young Actors

ARTICLE – Memorization Lessons for Young Actors

Gayla Goehl, Assistant Director @ The Playground, A Young Actors Conservatory

When I mentioned this I was going to write an article about memorization to Gary, a cold chill went down my spine.  When I hear the word ‘memorize’ it zooms me back to one particular moment in my life.  No matter how many plays, musicals, films, commercials, songs and auditions I have memorized over the years, I still think of that moment.

I’m talking about one exact moment when I, live, in front of six hundred people, during the final performance of an original musical (where I had created the role and had done sixty three performances), had just said the last line of the show.  I was about to break into the song telling the man of my dreams (well, the actor portraying the man of my dreams) that I loved him.  The orchestra played the intro.  I was connected to the emotion of love, my heart filled with it.  I was on the verge of tears of happiness. (Remember I was just acting) I looked into his eyes, took a deep breath, and… nothing!  Literally nothing. I couldn’t remember the first word.  I couldn’t remember the second word, or the phrase. Nothing.  I realized that my cue had passed and I had missed my vocal entrance. The orchestra leader quickly covered by vamping to give me time to come in. Still nothing… Not a single word came to me.  My brain was completely empty.  The love of my life (the actor I should have been singing to) suddenly starting singing the song to me. He had heard me sing it so many times that he knew it. My hero!  He sang until, like a flash of lighting, all the lyrics, pitches and nuances came floating back into my head. I picked the song back up and sang for my life. End of show. Applause. Our bows.  Curtain closes.  No one in the audience ever knew what had happened.  However, I was left there stunned.I was twenty-seven.  I had been performing musicals professionally for thirteen years.  I had seen this happen to other performers.  However, it had never happened to me until that moment.

What had happened? Did I not memorize well enough?  Was something wrong with my brain?   Should I see a doctor? I had heard a cough in the audience, had my concentration lapsed?  Was I getting old? Was I finished as an actress?
From that day on, I have been fascinated with memory and memorization.
Let’s define memory. states:


Memory (noun) the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts,      events, impressions, etc. or recognizing previous experiences.
Memorize (verb) to commit to memory; learn by heart.

So we memorize to store information in our memory.
A vital part of being an actor is the ability to memorize so that you commit the scene or monologue to your memory.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult for young actors to find a good balance learning the technique of memorization. New actors might say any of the following:

  • I memorized all the lines. I’m prepared.
  • I’m not good at memorization, so I didn’t do it.
  • I didn’t have enough time to memorize this week.

In acting, it is important to know that you are not only memorizing lines.  An actor needs to memorize entrances, exits, blocking, activity, sub-text, pacing, timing, hitting their marks, where to look, etc.The list seems endless.

I watch countless students come to class, confident that they have ‘memorized’ the lines.  However, when and actor is performing in front of a class, on-camera, with other actors, they cannot control the other actors or how the scene will go.  And, once an actor adds emotion, the lines often go flying away.  Which, I realize now, is what happened to me on that fateful day.  Once a young actor starts to connect with the emotions in a scene: love, excitement, frustration, confusion, anger; no matter how much they prepare, no matter how much they memorize, lines can be forgotten.

As teachers, we are aware that actors might forget lines during rehearsals and during the filming process. It’s okay.  When an actor is committed to the scenes, really in the moment, really living the life of the character and feeling all the emotions, it’s easy to forget a line.

On the flip side, we expect our students to have properly memorized their homework during the week. Often, I give a young actor a blank sheet of paper when they come into class. They must write down their part of the script, exactly, word for word, including punctuation and capitalization.  This has two benefits.  One, writing down the script is another way for the brain to take in the lines and often, the actor notices words and phrases in a new way when they write them down.  Second, it challenges the actor to make sure they have done their memorization work.  If they forgot a line during class, we know that it’s not because they hadn’t tried.

Every actor has his or her own personal way of memorizing.  I record the whole scene on tape.  I create an image of the place the scene is occurring.  I visualize the people I am talking to.  Chose what I am thinking as the other character talk. Make choices of what I want during the scene. Then I listen back to it.  Creating the whole scene with my mind.  I also memorize while I walk or swimming laps.  Always creating the atmosphere and people in my mind and then running the lines as if it were happening at that moment. (Yes, I realized that some people might think that I am crazy as I walk around Los Angeles talking to myself!)

I also write the entire scene out word-for-word.  I find that really reinforces all the little  connector words that join long sentences like ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘also’.  Finally, prior to going on set, I see if I can say all my lines backwards, starting with the last word first.

Here are some other methods that might work better for you.

  • Read, Read Read: Read the scene over and over again, until you have a complete understanding of what is going on in the scene.  This can help you logically understand what comes next in the scene.
  • Tape-record Your Lines: You can tape everyone’s lines. You could tape just your lines. You could also tape the cue lines before you speak and leave a blank space for where you are to talk.  (Sarah’s favorite way)
  • Word by Word: You can start at the first word and memorize it. Then the second word, and say them together. Then the third word, say them all together and so on. (Laura’s favorite way)
  • Phrase by Phrase: Similar to word for word, you can learn a short phrase, drill it. Then memorize the next phrase, drill it and add it to the first.
  • Read, Cover, Say, Check: You can read the line, cover up the line and say it out loud, then uncover it and check if you said it correctly.  (Kelli’s favorite way)
  • Write it down: Put your script away and try to write out all your lines. Include punctuation,  emotional words in parentheses that are important to the scenes and all (beats), (pauses) or (then).  Get someone else like a friend or parent to check over you work.  Do it over and over again until you can write it out all correctly.
  • Add Movement: Activity during memorization really helps with overall concentration.  Try walking around and saying your lines out loud.  Jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball, skate boarding, swimming, anything you love to do.  Saying your lines out loud is much more effective than saying them in your head.
  • Visualization: Close your eyes and visual every part of the scene. Visualize your choices:  where you are coming from, where you are going, who do you see there, why you are there,  what you want from the other person, why you want it.  Then say the lines out loud while you are visualizing everything else in your head.
  • Find a partner: Ask your mother, father, sister, brother, or friend. Grandparents are great at this. Find any other person who will practice the scene with you. Have them read the lines with you.  Have them tell you if they notice that you missed a word.

Lot of new ideas to try!

So get out there and start memorizing!