Actors never learn an effective tool for memorizing lines in school, and, as a result, the task is daunting and difficult for many.
Create a visual and location-based method for actors to link their dialogue with images and organize those images in their brains.
Actors found the visualization technique effective, and, as a result, memorized more quickly and did more character research.
Every actor’s brain functions differently, so slight modifications are needed depending on the performer.
Establishing an online program to build access to memory tools; applying the technique to other theatrical disciplines.
Nothing seemed to be working. An older actress sat on stage during tech rehearsals for a new play, and, try as she might, she just couldn’t remember what to say. She had very little blocking, and with an aging brain, was convinced that she couldn’t remember her lines. Director Emily Mann tried everything she could to help the performer, but at the end of the day, a jerry-rigged teleprompter had to be installed in the stage manager’s booth. Defeat.
Garrett Ayers, an intern at the time at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., where Mann is the artistic director, sat in on the rehearsal and observed.
“I would come in every day, and it just broke my heart,” Ayers remembers. “I started thinking: This is the fundamental skill that every actor—no matter what style, what culture, what language—has to master, and it’s not taught. It became my calling.”
This wasn’t the first time that Ayers had encountered the problem, and he knew it was not an issue exclusive to older performers. Ayers moved to New York after college to pursue work as a director, and he started Project:Theater. The actors in his shows took a long time to memorize their lines, and as a result, he spent rehearsals focusing on getting the cast off-book instead of working out the material. Consequently, the shows struggled. What to do?
After his internship at the McCarter, Ayers didn’t take on any directing projects for a year, and dove into memory study. He read Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, about Foer’s own quest into the science of memorization. In the book, Foer visits memory championships where competitors outdo each other in challenges like remembering an entire deck of cards. One of these “memory champions,” Ron White, has his own industry and training program, which Ayers bought and then applied to his knowledge of theatre. White has worked with real estate agents, waiters, bartenders, lawyers, ministers, yoga teachers and other professionals on their memory, and Ayers was shocked to learn that similar tools had never been applied to theatre.
“These techniques are not new; I did not invent them. The Greek and Roman philosophers were doing this before the printed word,” Ayers says.
He bases his program, aptly titled How to Remember, on the following assumption: Our mind thinks in pictures and organizes those pictures in locations. While many actors have mastered the visualization part, they miss a crucial step, in Ayers’s eyes, which is to associate those images with places. Many actors do this by linking their lines with their blocking, but this creates problems when some performers say they can’t be off-book until the show is locked, or in TV and film when actors have to show up on set with everything memorized. Ayers teaches actors to find those locations in their mind and organize the images so the lines can be retrieved at will.
“Every actor—no matter what they do right now—their method is really hope. You’re repeating it over and over again or you’re highlighting your lines or whatever you’re doing,” Ayers explains. “My main goal with all of this is to teach actors about the process of memory so they can be proactive and strategic about approaching their text.”
Mann, for one, couldn’t agree more, and she’s excited at the prospect. “It seems like a no-brainer! Why haven’t we had this?” Mann says. “Everyone struggles with memorization. It’s much more prevalent than people know, but we’ve just been able to hide it very well from the public and will continue to do so. It’s not just with older actors. There are all these different techniques that are not really taught in drama school.”
For actor Kathy Paradise, Ayers’s techniques were her saving grace. Paradise met Ayers when he directed her in a small role in a production of Prelude to a Kiss at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and though she hasn’t had a major role onstage since the early ’90s, she was recently cast as Mother Superior in Agnes of God. “Frankly, I would never attempt a role with three weeks rehearsal with this amount of lines. It’s just not me,” says Paradise, 68. “I wasn’t even going to audition for it because I was afraid. I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to memorize the lines. So I thought, ‘No, let somebody else do it.’”
While she admits she hasn’t mastered the process of memorization, she has found visualizing and creating meaningful associations helpful both in getting off-book and creating her character. “Because of the process, I have become more involved and much more interested in the play,” she says. “You have to know what you’re saying and what you mean in the line in order for you to create a visual for yourself.”
Though Ayers makes sure to stress that “this is not an acting technique, this is a memorization technique,” the added benefit of more in-depth character research and work led Walt Jones, director of theatre at Colorado State University, to incorporate Ayers’s work into the school’s curriculum.
Ayers originally came to Colorado State as a guest director for a production of Spring Awakening—the play, not the musical—in fall 2012, and at the same time, Jones was rethinking the program’s course structure. He wanted to find a way to make all the disciplines taught—directing, playwriting, acting, design—personal and story-driven, which is what How to Remember stresses.
“Through Garrett, we actually re-focused the whole program through the lens of storytelling,” Jones explains. Ayers has incorporated his memory technique into some of his classes and seen a benefit. One of his students had not been cast in a production at the school for three years, and after Ayers taught him to work on confidently memorizing a new monologue, he received his first role.
These memory techniques are particularly useful for actors working on new work, when changes in lines and blocking happen frequently. Often, so many last-minute changes can create tension between artistic collaborators, and developing a better method for storing the lines in your memory helps not just the actor but the relationships in the room as well.
However, the process is still new, and Ayers is continually learning how to apply it and how to individualize it for different actors. At a seminar recently, an actor who struggles with dyslexia approached Ayers, and while he was able to teach this performer some helpful tips, it was an application Ayers didn’t originally consider. He also had a student having difficulty memorizing her lines in sign language, and there are many more applications and hurdles still to come that Ayers is excited to work out.
“For me, this goes beyond just teaching actors how to memorize,” he says, pointing out that once performers master the process, they can memorize more quickly and have more time to spend devoted to their families and other priorities. “It improves their lives.”
Jones, once an actor himself, agrees. “Memorization was the hardest thing in the world for me, and it’s basically why I stopped,” he explains. “This sounds like what would have saved me.”