Over- and Under-Memorizing: Finding the Sweet Spot
When I proposed to my wife, I didn't recite my offer like a schoolboy doing the pledge of allegiance. Nor did I stammer around waiting tor the right words to come. In fact, I had covertly rehearsed the scene so many times it was for all intents and purposes memorized. But | didn't allow my memorization to push me toward trivialization. I found the sweet spot: unwavering lines still stoked with passion.
In a way, that serves as a model for the right kind of memorization. And when you get right down to it, memorization is the engine that drives the drama. Without memorized lines, a script is reduced to an exercise in improvisation: intriguing when attempted by accomplished actors, but nearly disastrous as a substitute for proper preparation.
Effective line memorization that hits the sweet spot brings out the best of the lines and the best of the actors. Yet it’s a hard balance to maintain. Many beginning actors fall into one of two extremes: over- or under-memorization.
How can you know your lines too well? Just think of the Lord’s Prayer. When was the last time you really meant every word of that prayer? What's the danger? It's over-memorized.
Sure, you don't have to worry about dropping a line or slipping into overdrive. No matter how nervous you were, I'd wager you could recite the Lord's Prayer in virtually any situation in front of any audience. You could do it with a Kazoo band playing in your ear or with a dachshund tugging at your pant leg.
Congratulations. Now just try to say it with real meaning. Try to make it believable, like it was the first time the audience ever heard it. That's tough…it’s almost too familiar. So the best defense against dropping a line is ironically the best recipe for dull line delivery.
You can tell a line is over-memorized when it sounds sing-songy or if the actor seems detached. They've separated themselves from the content of the line and are performing more like an android. Whenever this happens, ask them to forget what the script says and just deliver the line in their own words. You must drive them back to the heart of the script which is in, but not limited to, the lines they’ve memorized.
Under-memorization is akin to laziness, and it’s more often found in veteran than beginning actors. Under-memorizers usually think they’re good enough to glance at the script and then wing it. Not so. In fact those kinds of antics wreak havoc on a good rehearsal and performance. If a line is not delivered with precision and regularity, the subsequent actor will have no idea when the preceding line is done. So the elapsed time between delivered lines grows, and the script’s pace and heart die a slow death.
Under-memorizers increase the anxiety of all the other performers and risk lapsing into total ad-libbing. That does the script no favors and usually dilutes the message with too much verbiage. Each line of a script is written with a purpose. Even word choice is important. Before actors deviate from the script, they should secure approval from the director, who's keeping the entire effect in mind.
So, like many things in life, strike a balance. Yes, memorize the lines. Work hard at it. Don't wing it. And learn them till you can recite them automatically during CSI: Crime Scene Investigation commercials.
But then forget you have them memorized. Deliver them like it’s the first time those words have been uttered. Think of the meaning. Inhabit the lines. Feel the progression. Forget the lines and hold to them at the same time. Hit the sweet spot, and don't look back. Oh, and try it with the Lord's Prayer, too.