How good is your memory? Is it shot, like mine? Do you know all your passwords? Can you remember what you did last Tuesday? If someone asked you to recall every item you bought during a recent trip to the grocery store, could you do it?
Now consider the brain power involved in memorizing an entire script for a play — and retaining it for months, if not longer.
I can't think of the last time I had to commit entire sentences to memory. Can you? Actors do it all the time. Learning lines is a basic part of their job. So basic, I'm not sure as an entertainment reporter I've ever asked about it.
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- PHOTO: Gwendolyn Whiteside, star of the the one-person show "Grounded," outside Tribune Tower.
- PHOTO: Second City performer Steve Waltien looks over his script for "Depraved New World."
- STORY: Issues of drone warfare get a female pilot's human face
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And yet, aren't you curious?
I thought about this recently while watching old episodes of "Deadwood." Creator David Milch was notorious for working on scripts until the last minute, which meant "it was a foregone conclusion we wouldn't be able to learn our lines," the character actor Stephen Tobolowsky wrote in an essay for Backstage magazine earlier this year. "Ian McShane told me to keep looking at him, stay in character and just call out 'Line.'" The scene became a "standoff of two actors saying, 'Line'" — with the prompts edited out of the final product.
That's actually pretty funny. It would never work in theater. There are no retakes. There is no editing. Once the performance begins, everyone has to know the dialogue. Memorizing the script might just be the most fundamental thing an actor can do besides showing up at the theater.
"It's still the hardest thing for me," said Gwendolyn Whiteside, who plays an Air Force drone pilot in the solo show "Grounded," presented by American Blues Theater. "I don't know about other actors, but for me it feels like I'm pulling teeth."
The classic anxiety dream for actors? Stepping on stage and forgetting your lines.
So would it surprise you to know that the actors I spoke with said memorization techniques were not on the curriculum at their theater schools? "It inevitably comes up," said Cindy Gold, who runs the acting program at Northwestern University, "but my experience is that you can't teach it. It is a skill that is individual to each person. I mainly read the script a lot. I just read it, read it, read it."
That sounds … depressing. But it's the same way I learned songs on the piano as a kid. Play it again. And again. Over and over.
Steve Waltien is in the cast of Second City's main stage show "Depraved New World." While there is some improvisation in Second City shows, they are primarily written and memorized by the performers. Waltien begins by reading a script three times. And then he buckles down.
"I'll take a sheet of scrap paper that I fold in half and I use that to cover over everything but the line I'm trying to memorize and the line before it (known as the cue line), and I'll quiz myself to see if I can say it without looking. Then I'll move the paper down to my next line."
The scrap paper method is a common one. But there are ways to juice that process along. Whiteside researched neuroscience on Google "to see if there were things that helped the brain," she said, "because there has to be a smarter way to do this than just drilling, reading it over and over again."
Here's what she found. "I read all of these articles that kept saying when you memorize something, you should read a section and then immediately take a nap. Because somehow the brain will process the short-term memory and push all of that information you just loaded into a different section of the brain that is better for longer recall.
"As soon as I read that I was like, 'I get a nap? That's part of it? This is great!' And there's a science behind it. That doesn't mean it's less difficult, but it means at least you're working with your brain instead of against it."
There's more: "The other tip that scientists recommend is to walk," she said. After a nap, Whiteside might walk around the block without the script to see how much dialogue she can remember. "I have no idea why this works, but they said if you actually walk instead of just sitting there, and you have your muscles moving while you're attempting to memorize, somehow it speeds the brain up."
The actors I spoke to talked about striving to be "word perfect," which means in rehearsal they might get notes like: "You usually say 'and' here, but it's really 'but' — it's so specific," said Blake Russell, who co-stars in LiveWire Theatre's "Partners," a rapid-fire comedy about the sometimes fraught business and personal relationships between a gay couple and a straight couple. "But when you're working on a new play, you want to get it right and respect the playwright as much as you can, especially if they'll be in attendance."
In my 15 years reviewing theater, I have no clear memories of an actor noticeably whiffing on a line (the term of art when the mind goes blank is to "go up" on a line), but it happens, and fudging through those moments is part of the job as well. Matthew Broderick ran into trouble in 2009 when he starred off-Broadway in a new play from Kenneth Lonergan called "Starry Messenger." The script was tweaked during previews, and Broderick "called out for lines multiple times," according to The New York Times.
Age can be a factor. Angela Lansbury is 88 and has been open about using an earpiece — one that feeds her lines should she need it — for her Tony Award-winning performance in "Blithe Spirit," which she also took to London earlier this year. Her reasoning makes sense: Audiences paying steep ticket prices for a bold-face name expect a first-rate performance, aging brain cells or no.
In Chicago, a number of well-respected actors in Lansbury's generation regularly appear onstage without the safety net of an earpiece. Ann Whitney recently finished a run of "Lost in Yonkers" at Northlight. Her age is an "unlisted number" she deadpanned, but "I'm no spring chicken."
"I used be able to learn my lines in two weeks," she told me. "I'm a little bit older now, and I need the script a little bit sooner." The first rehearsal for the Northlight show was in April. She started memorizing the script as early as November.
Whiteside is the only person onstage in "Grounded," so she gave herself twice as much time (eight weeks) to commit the script to memory because it meant not just learning her lines, but learning every line. "After every solo show, I'm like, 'That was my last one. I can't do this again. This is so hard.' And then about five years later someone hands me a script that's so brilliant that I'll be like, 'OK, one more!'"
Other tricks actors rely on: "When I have a big monologue," said Russell, "I'll write it down, but I'll use a mnemonic device. So I'm just writing down the first letter of every word. If your line is, 'Look, I don't want to assume anything about him,' it would be 'L I D W T A A A H.' And if I just look at those letters, it will jog my memory; I'll know exactly where I am. So if I get caught up or mess up on a word, I can find it because it's a certain section of letters, rather than the entire page."
Writing it down by hand is helpful, he said. "It's a shortcut, and it gets that hand-eye-brain coordination muscle working." Which is what some experts say, as well. Earlier this month Scientific American published research that found "students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more" than those who use a laptop.
Waltien brought up the "memory palace" technique: "There are these memory experts who memorize hundreds of digits, or the order of a shuffled deck of cards. And the way they do it is they create these memory palaces — they say to picture the house you grew up in — and then they place each card around the room: 'I'm going into the door of my childhood home, and the ace of spades is there on the left on the table.'
"I don't necessarily use this method, but what I have learned is that spatial things help," he said. "That's why as an actor, blocking (the location of the actors onstage during a scene) becomes your friend, because oftentimes it's very easy to memorize something when you can say, 'This is the line that I say when I'm standing here, facing out this way; then I turn, put this prop on the table and say this other line.' The memory becomes associated with an action or a location."
Or maybe it just makes things harder. LaKecia Harris plays the title character in Prologue Theater's musical comedy "Trafford Tanzi," about a 1970s-era tomboy-turned-wrestling-pro.
"The physicality itself is (the equivalent of) more lines that you have to memorize," she said. "It makes it harder because I'm not only talking but also fighting someone. We learned the fights first, and then the lines came second. So it was like, 'Is this move supposed to be on this line?' Finding the timing was complicated."
My own reliance on technology has probably deteriorated my memorization skills more than I want to know, but there's an app for that too. It works as a digital scene partner. "It's called Rehearser, and it's amazing," Russell said. "You record all the lines, and then it will read your partner's dialogue back to you and give you a beep when it's your turn to speak. And if you need help, you can tap the screen, and it'll show you what your line is. It's so helpful for those quick turnarounds for commercial auditions."
Writing style matters. For some actors, Shakespeare is harder to memorize than contemporary dialogue because the syntax, grammar and vocabulary can feel so foreign on the tongue. Jeff Daniels recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the scariest part about working on Aaron Sorkin's HBO series "The Newsroom" is "the amount of dialogue and the speed of it, and to make it sound like it's thoughts falling out of my head versus I was just able to memorize it. That's the big battle with Aaron."
TV's tight shooting schedule demands a brain quick on the uptake. So does sketch comedy, and Waltien said he's gotten better at it over the years. A cast member at Second City might come in with a new scene at 5:30 p.m. and want to try it onstage at 8. "Weirdly, I kind of enjoy it," he said. This happens frequently during the monthslong process of creating new sketches in front of the audience. "You might improvise a scene one night and then be asked to memorize a transcription of that scene the next night, and it's very surreal to be walking in your own footprints."
Most of the actors I talked to said they could memorize a six-page script (translation: a six-minute scene) in about an hour.
"If you're giving me six pages to memorize," said Russell, "I would love to say, 'Give me an hour to learn it, and then give me a 15- or 20-minute nap.' That gives you enough time to read it, understand what's going on, memorize it and then add all the other layers on top of it, so it's not just I got it memorized and I can read it to you like a robot."
Whiteside joked that it would take her days to learn six pages. But she pointed out something else: Once you learn your lines, it might take some maintenance to keep them stored in the brain.
"I will run the whole show out loud in my apartment for my cats just because I'm scared that if I don't run it every single day during the production I will forget a line," she said. "I don't know if that's true or it's my own neuroses. But until we close on July 13, this story is being said out loud every single day before I go to the theater."