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An Actor's Challenge

One of the questions that we hear all the time in one form or another is, “How do you remember all those lines…?”

Well I’m going to let you in on a not-so-well-kept, dirty little secret amongst Shakespeare actors –

It’s a lot of work…

Actually, it’s a piled-high-wheelbarrow-of-proverbially-smelly-fertilizer lot of work…

We actors tend to hedge a little when answering this question, saying, “Well – the meter & the rhyme in the verse, and blah-blah-blah…” But at the end of the day, it just takes some really focused effort to memorize all that stuff.

It should be said that the more you do it, the easier it gets – there have apparently been studies that seem to show that memorizing helps keep the brain active and in older people, can even help stave off the degeneration and memory loss that comes with getting older… And this has been true in my experience – (…that it gets easier with practice, not that it wards off Alzheimer’s…)

In the past couple seasons I’ve had the privilege of playing a number of great roles – big parts with lots of words… I have to admit to being a little intimidated when I first got started on Prospero in Feb. 2016 – he has a HUGE number of lines in the first half of “The Tempest” and the second half, while quite a bit lighter, includes his most famous speeches.

I started out by doing text analysis and verse scanning in a copy that I’d printed out, and then spent a little time reading (both silently and aloud) Prospero’s part. Upon receiving the cut-script (the play had to be cut to fit a 90-minute performance time slot) via email, I basically did all that text and verse analysis again. Now that may seem a bit of wasted effort, but I think it helped me become more familiar with the words and the patterns of the story that Prospero tells. Then we received a hard-copy script at the first full-cast read through – so I did it all again. Highlighting, scanning, analyzing, and reading aloud. What I found during the first couple weeks of rehearsal was that memorizing the words seemed (almost…) easy.

It may sound time consuming – to do all that verse scansion and word-nerd work… It was, but not as much as you might think. Each round of working through the script, highlighting and marking it up took a couple hours, and these sessions were separated in time by a week or so. And when the time came to commit the lines to memory, it all felt like much less effort than I’d put forth in the past. All in all, 8-10 hours (plus rehearsal time) over about four weeks seemed reasonably efficient to me.

Just in the way of contrast, when I played Sir John Falstaff in “Merry Wives” and in “Henry IV” (Jack speaks almost exclusively prose…) I had a MUCH harder time learning the lines.

This year, I’ve also been blessed to play the roles Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and that of Chorus/Falstaff in our upcoming run of “Henry V” - both roles are heavy with long speeches – in verse – so naturally, I attacked them both in a similar way as I had Prospero. The production schedules for these two shows actually overlapped as well, so using this method has really saved my bacon, allowing me to be ready for the demanding schedule (one week of rehearsals) of “Merchant” and then to re-join the “Henry V” cast (mostly…) prepared for the final two-week push to open the show this weekend. (COME SEE US…! ! ! J )

I’d love to hear in the comments below, your favorite tips & tricks for memorizing Shakespeare efficiently and effectively.

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