How to Memorise a Script

I try to end every show by saying goodbye to everyone who has come to the show. It's a lovely opportunity to say thank you to both friends and strangers who have come along. There's not usually enough time for an in-depth conversation, but there is one question that gets asked more than any other:'How do you remember all that?' And that question is often followed closely by:'Do you ever forget what comes next?'

So I thought I would write a bit about the process of getting to know the script. For context, my monologues are all more or less the same length--6,500words which is between 45 and 50 minutes. Getting to the point of remembering the scripts well enough for a performance includes a lot of different techniques and processes, some of them formal and mechanical, others a lot less tangible (but still important).

Remembering your own script

One thing to say is that t's probably a lot easier to remember a script you've written yourself than one that someone else has written. Not only do I already know the story, but if there are parts that I’m having trouble remembering, I can rewrite until the words and the rhythms work for my memory.I’ve discovered that this is to the ultimate benefit of the writing because often the reason I can’t remember something is because the logic of the writing isn’t quite right, and the rewriting makes it better writing and easier to remember.

Script analysis

I probably don’t do as much script analysis as actors learning someone else’s script, again because it’s my story so I already know its structures.But I do divide the script into sections and sub-sections, which might be just a paragraph (some exposition or reflection) or a few pages (a story like the paint story in Where to From Here which I would divide into smaller sections).

Easy wins

There’s always a couple of parts of the script that are easy to learn. Sometimes this is because it’s a story that I’ve trialled in other places first or that has grown from a story I used in another forum (for example, the story about the paint colour came out of a story I told at tenx9 and then at my Christmas letter reading). Sometimes it’s because of the language I’ve used (for example, it’s got a lot of rhymes). And sometimes it’s for no reason that I can pinpoint, it’s just easy to learn. I learn these parts first, because it makes the whole task feel a bit less overwhelming.

Start from the beginning (but skip through to the end)

Apart from the easy bits, I usually start from the beginning and work my way through, because the cumulation and momentum of the story makes it easier to learn. About three-quarters of the way through the whole process I usually skip through to the end and learn that part. That’s because the end is usually written really carefully, and I want to get it spot on. So I want to give myself as much time as possible to get it right.

Old-fashioned rote learning

Some of the work is simply hack work, just going over and over and over until it sticks. Sometimes I can do that just by repeating it to myself a few times, sometimes it’s a back-and-forth process of saying it out loud, covering the script, saying it again, writing it out, covering it…all the stuff that gives exam flashbacks.

By the time I go on stage, I’ve written the script out a lot of times. Even when I’m backstage waiting to go on, I will usually write out the first page or two (this is actually very calming, because it reminds me I know the script, and I always use a pen that makes a reassuring scratching sound, usually a coloured one to give the sense of life and movement). I staple around ten sheets of A4 paper together, and by the end of the season I have a lot of these piled up on my desk. I get quite superstitious about these and never throw them out until the end of the season. It feels like I would be throwing away part of my memory if I do.

The detail is important

All of my shows are complete scripts, and while some parts can be a bit looser than others, I learn every part of the script carefully. This is becauseI don’t want my brain to have any extra work during the performance. For example, I talk about my shoes in Where to From Here, but I know exactly which ones I’m going to mention. It would be too distracting to have to think of anew pair of shoes every time.

It's a mind and body experience

I do a lot of walking, weights training and relaxation exercises whenI’m learning a script. I walk around the house if I need a quick break from memorising,I take long walks to consolidate the script, and when I get close to a performance I do a walking rehearsal, saying the script to myself as I step out along the esplanade (I was self-conscious about this at first, but actually no one ever takes any notice, and if you put in a pair of ear buds you just look like you’re talking on the phone anyway). I’m usually consumed with nerves the few weeks before a season launches, but I went to a course a few years ago which taught me that a performance is always better for a well-rested mind and body, so I pay a lot of attention now to getting enough sleep, and if I can’t sleep, at least resting (paradoxically, resting well takes a lot of work!).

As part of the direction and rehearsals, we can also build in a lot of physical triggers that remind my brain where we are, and they help to build the momentum of the storytelling as well.

Memory tips and techniques

One of my favourite subjects when I did my grad dip in psychology a few years ago was the learning unit, which included lots about how memory works.There are many, many psychology and other science-based techniques to suit the many types of ways our brains work. One that I use a lot is the method of loci, attaching each thing that I need to remember to some physical place that I know well. That might be moving around my bedroom and standing in front of each piece of furniture (in my mind) and saying each line, or moving from room to room in one of the (many) houses I’ve lived in. This is especially useful for passages where I need to get each line right.

I’ve learned that I’m very visual in my memorising so take full advantage of this—with post it notes in different colours, the scratching of a particular pen as I write things out, flip charts with the script conceptualised as a map, underlining passages.

How long does it take to memorise a script?

I can probably get a script memorised in about ten days, working on about two pages per day. But this is really only the first stage of knowing the script well, It’s in the rehearsals, the performances in front of audiences and the revisiting that the script is consolidated in my memory. Then comes the much deeper process of not just remembering, but knowing the script.

Early audiences

The earliest audiences are very small indeed, usually limited to Maggie, the tech crew and Adrian. Even though performances in front of them are low stakes, in that it doesn’t matter if I stumble over the script, they are still invaluable in helping me to memorise the script. All rehearsals help me to find the soft points of my memory and the tripping hazards.

The difference between memorising and knowing—the impact of an audience

In many ways, the memorising is only the beginning. Once I have it memorised, comes the richness of knowing. It allows me to find ever-increasing meaning and nuance, quite often this is meaning I didn’t quite realise I’d written in.

I know the script a lot better by the end of the first season than I do at the beginning, but this is much more than simply memory. I know I say this all the time, but the impact of an audience on creating the show cannot be underestimated. The audience reactions over a series of nights gradually combine to reveal the different pulses not only of the script but of the show, and over time these embed themselves into my understanding of the show. This might be starting to sound a bit woo, but there’s definitely a visceral element to memory and this becomes a vital part of the performance. I start out thinking that I know the script intimately and intricately—after all I wrote it—but I’m always amazed at how much more meaning is revealed to me through the process first of working with Maggie, and then of performing in front of an audience.

Revisiting the show

Most of my shows get another run at some later stage. In fact, I try to follow up the first season sometime in the next six months because this is invaluable in helping to consolidate everything I’ve learned about the show. Each time I bring a show back to the stage the memory part of it becomes easier. I have performed Pearls over many years now, and I love it so deeply, that if you invited me around for dinner I could probably give an impromptu performance without too much searching for the next line.

Do you ever forget?

In my earliest performances, I twice forgot to the point that I didn’t know what to say next. And for a while that freaked me out, as I thought, ‘I don’t know what to do if I forget’. But then I realised, that it does happen every now and then, but I’ve just learnt to keep going and I’ll catch up to myself.This is part of the reason that memorising the script thoroughly is so important. It gives your brain every chance to get back on track. And when it does happen, it usually helps me to get the script even more firmly in my mind, because the next day I will go over that particular part of the script even more carefully, and there’s often a reason that a line or section gave me trouble. It might be the transition between two separate sections, for example, or a paragraph that I need to rewrite so the sequence of sentences has better logic.

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