One of the least glamorous but most important skills for the musical theatre artist to have in their professional toolbox is simple memorization. Memorization will be an element of every acting job you encounter, and your lines are only the beginning; you also must memorize entrances and exits, blocking positions, props, and costume changes. Whoever said that actors make poor students didn’t consider how mastering the structure of a show uses the same skills as acing a test: it’s the rapid absorption of mass information. The amount of memorization work ahead of you depends on how large your role, how long your rehearsal period is, and how much backstage help you’ll have in setting props and costumes. Regardless of the level of support, it is always best that the actor takes their destiny into their own hands and memorizes all elements of their role from start to finish, in case a stage hand is out sick or a fellow actor forgets a line that prompts yours. It’s always best to have yourself covered.
Sound overwhelming? It can be, so here are a few ways to rapidly memorize information so that it sticks not only in your head but also in your body. The following techniques pull from rote learning theory, which is the memorization of information rather than the understanding of it.
Rehearse right before bed, and as soon as you wake up.
Have you ever heard the phrase “why don’t you sleep on it?” It’s a mysterious but real phenomenon – sleep allows your brain to absorb new information quickly by using a memory consolidation process during slow-wave sleep. Sleep moves information into your subconscious mind, technically known as the hippocampus, where dreams, emotions and long-term memory happen, and processes it while you are asleep without other daytime distractions. If the last thing you do before sleeping is recite your lines, it is more likely that those messages will be processed in your subconscious brain while you are asleep. Similarly, when you first wake up, your brain is fresh and malleable, ready to absorb new information. Take advantage of this state by reciting lines again. You’ll be shocked at how much you remember from last night, without doing any work! Sleep is like magic.
Speak your lines in many different accents and emotional states.
Try reading your lines in anger, in sadness, in joy, in a British accent or Southern dialect. The more ways you can rehearse your lines, the more it will remove them from the context of the show. Normally you don’t want to separate acting from the context of a show, however, we are not acting here, we are memorizing. By speaking lines in different ways, the text is reduced down to simple data, similar to the data a computer reads. The simpler the data is, the easier it is for the brain to store it and call it up on demand, a process known as direct retrieval.
Memorize while exercising or using dexterity.
Have you ever memorized a dance routine or played an instrument, and noticed how your feet or hands seem to know where to go on their own? Your muscles can train in memory and will start to take over, relieving your brain as the sole responsible party for recalling information. Try memorizing your lines while running, exercising or playing a sport. Better yet, rehearse while you bounce a ball, play catch, jump rope, play hopscotch, or jump stairs. These activities all use dexterity, which aids memory by building brain cells. If you can remember your lines while doing two things at once, it will be a breeze when you’re onstage just doing one concentrated activity.
For short sections, assign simple choreography to each phrase.
Utilizing the above principle on muscle memory, sometimes your lines are short enough that you can rehearse by assigning a choreographed move to each phrase of your lines. Try to do something with your hands or body to match the meaning of what you’re saying. Very simple, kindergarten-level choreography is ideal, the cheesier the better. For example:
“I could have danced all night Make a swaying dance motion
I could have danced all night (same as above)
And still have begged for more, Hands out, begging posture
I could have spread my wings Arms spread like a bird
And done a thousand things…” Count on fingers, representing thousand things
Put it in the background of your focus.
Rehearse while cooking, knitting, doing something with your hands, driving, or any other activity that can be at the forefront of your attention. Let your lines take the background of your mental space, which is ideally where you want your lines to reside, similar to the sleep principle. The sooner you can get your lines into your subconscious the better.
Never do it wrong, correct and start over.
For better or worse, memorization is about perfectionism. In order for your brain to really latch on to information, it needs to be rehearsed to precision each time, meaning that the words need to be said exactly correct each time. If the line is “I need to eat breakfast,” and you rehearse it as “I’d like to eat breakfast,” stop and start over with the correct text. Seemingly meaningless details like this will make a big difference in how quickly your brain retains it (plus your director will be thrilled you’re not one of those actors who “gets creative” with their lines).
A little bit each day really is best.
The most effective way to absorb mass information is to start small and add to it daily. Break your rehearsal period down in terms of how much time you have: let’s say you have 100 lines, and you have a 30 day period until you’re expected to be off book. Start on day 1 by memorizing 3-4 lines, and add 3-4 more lines to it each day, until you’ve reached 100 by the end of the month. Don’t wait until the last minute to start memorizing – without a proper incubation period your memorization won’t be stable, and you’ll struggle with consistency once you’re off book.
Try applications for blocking, props, costumes, and entrances.
Most of the above paragraphs pertain to memorization of lines or songs. For all the other elements of your responsibility to the show, which may include remembering complex blocking, setting of props and costumes, and entrances and exits, you can also apply the above concepts to these, such as adding a little bit each day, starting over if rehearsed incorrectly, and most importantly, getting it into your muscle memory by physically doing the action rather than just thinking about it. Walk through all your entrances in your living room, and move through your blocking while you rehearse lines and songs.
Want more tips on giving a stellar performance? Check out our eBook, Sensational Scenes and Songs, a collection of techniques for building your character and giving a realistic performance, ideal for using after you’ve memorized your material.
One of the quickest routes to onstage confidence is knowing that you've memorized your lines, inside and out. If you still struggle with stage fright, check out our blog topic section on performance anxiety or our eBook titled Overcoming Performance Anxiety for Musical Theatre Performers.
 How to ‘cram’ while sleeping, Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/34048-sleep-learning.html
 How to improve your memory, Help Guide. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/memory/how-to-improve-your-memory.htm
 Excerpt from “I could have danced all night” from My Fair Lady.