Whether it’s a script for a play, scenes for next day’s shooting, or sides sent over shortly in advance of an audition, every actor will be familiar with the process of trying to get their lines off the page and into their brain.
The pressures of line-learning can cause anxiety, and the fear of forgetting them can hit your confidence, your focus, and ultimately your performance – but it doesn’t have to be this way. With practice, experimentation and patience, it’s possible to strengthen your memory, reduce that pressure, and find a memorisation strategy that fits into your own process as a performer.
Here, Mark Channon – performance coach, ‘Grand Master of Memory’, and author of Learning Your Lines – explains how to go about improving your memory, and creating a personalised line-learning approach you’ll come back to again and again.
If you were to score your memory between one to ten, how good would you say it is, where ten is the best possible version and one is the memory of a goldfish?
When I ask this question to a room of a hundred people, around twenty per cent believe they have poor memories (ranking themselves 1–3), seventy per cent believe they are average (4–7), and only a small percentage, usually around ten per cent, believe they have excellent memories (8–10).
How good we believe our memory to be can have an impact on how we approach a situation. Let’s say you have an audition tomorrow and you believe you have a poor memory; this will make you believe perhaps that you ‘can’t do it’, or that your ‘memory isn’t good enough to learn lines quickly’. You may even have past experiences to back both of these statements up. However, when you approach any type of memorisation or learning with this type of belief, it’s going to increase your levels of anxiety and impact on your performance.
The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well: the name you didn’t remember; the fact that slipped your mind; the location of your keys. But these are only a few of the jobs our memory performs, and like any set of challenges, they can be overcome with the right strategy; indeed, if you were to think about all the memories you have stored throughout your entire life, you would start to realise that your memory is, in fact, phenomenal.
‘The truth is we all have fantastic memories but we tend to focus on the moments where it didn’t work so well’
With regards to improving your memory, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet; improving your memory is a skill, and like any skill, it will require time, effort and commitment.
The good news, though, is that improving your memory is a skill, therefore it’s something you can learn! All you need is a set of compelling reasons and some good habits and routines. Once these are in place, anyone can improve their memory. For actors, the compelling reasons are usually the big rewards you’ll earn: increased confidence, a strategy to learn lines rapidly, the ability to make lines stick, and the chance to have more freedom in auditions and performance.
But what habits and routines should you be using? This is where my book, Learning Your Lines, comes in. It includes dozens of tips, tricks and techniques such as Memory Palaces (yes, like in Sherlock), Mental Maps, Creative Memorisation, Visual Cues and many more, along with exercises and examples to illustrate how they work in practice. You’ll discover how to harness these tools to strengthen your memory, and develop a personalised line-learning strategy that works for you and your acting process – one that is easier, faster and more enjoyable.
You too could build a mind palace like Sherlock Holmes (image from Sherlock © BBC)
In writing the book, I’ve drawn on both my own real-world experiences as an actor using these strategies for myself, as well as my many years coaching and training other actors. By both practising and teaching memory strategies I have developed a systematic approach not just to learning lines quickly, but also to building confidence and focus when applying this approach.
Let’s take a look at of one of the strategies I cover in the book.
The Chain Method
The Chain Method taps into our amazing visual memories; more than this, it also utilises our love for stories. Stories are easy to remember and hard to forget! In my experience, it is generally easier to remember the story and details of a fictional book than details of a non-fiction book, which might contain complex frameworks, terminology and facts.
When reading a story, you are in a state of flow whilst bringing the world to life with your imagination, making connections between characters and plots and, most importantly, making sense of things whilst being emotionally invested as if it were you at the centre of the story.
One of the differences between fiction and fact is that, with the first, you do not try to remember, it just happens through your heightened observation as you find yourself becoming part of the experience. With non-fiction, however, you tend to be much more focused on remembering, which ends up being counterintuitive. Stories that we experience can become unforgettable.
Try the activity below and see how the Chain Method works using the power of your visual memory and stories.
In a moment, you will read a story that includes fifteen main words. Each of these words is connected together with an association either visually, by narrative, or both. All you have to do is let the story come to life in your mind as clearly as you can, and give your attention to the details – what you see, hear, feel, smell or even taste. I’ll ask you to read through this story three times.
Big Ben is wearing a fur coat, he’s bouncing up and down on a springboard and dives into a large pot of honey. Out of the honey jumps a dinosaur. The dinosaur is wearing a baseball cap and swinging a baseball bat. He starts smashing up a Ferrari with the baseball bat. Driving the Ferrari is Tom Cruise, Tom is holding a gigantic cigar; he takes a cigar and puts it out on the head of a bald-headed man. The bald-headed man is eating a big sticky chocolate bar. Wrapped around the chocolate bar is a slimy snake, the snake is playing the drums and drinking a bottle of beer.
Read this through two more times, bringing it to life with more clarity each time.
Now test yourself out. Grab a piece of paper and write down as many of the keywords as you can remember in order (not the whole story). When I run this activity with anything from thirty to a hundred people, most will remember over ten words. If you are in the group that remembers all fifteen, well done! If you happen to get less than ten, stick with it.
People often ask me: ‘How long does it take to develop a good memory?’ From my observations over the last twenty-five years as a trainer and coach in memory and performance, you can see improvement relatively quickly – usually within a week or two. However, to permanently establish the skill requires around six weeks of consistent daily practice: at least ten to twenty minutes per day.
Tom Cruise in a Ferrari – did you remember it? If not, stick with it!
This six-week time span was backed up by two neuroscientists, Boris Konrad (also a world-class memory athlete) and Martin Dresler. Their research demonstrated that if you practise memory techniques daily then, in around six weeks, you see a change in the activity of your brain; your memory essentially becomes more efficient.
My hope is that Learning Your Lines will help you in this endeavour. Think of it as a set of ingredients in a recipe, rather than a fixed menu. As with all recipes, it’s beneficial to follow it as laid out at first. The first time, it may not turn out as expected, but with practice your skill will improve, and with enough time you will build the confidence to experiment with ideas, remove what doesn’t work, and add in what does, until you can eventually create something that feels personal and specifically yours.
Because if there is one thing that has stood out for me when working with other actors, it is this: everyone has their own process. Whether you follow Stanislavsky, Strasberg, Meisner, your own gut or some other method, the outcome for most actors seems to be the same: create an authentic character, be faithful to the story, live in the moment and react truthfully.
So whatever your process, you will hopefully discover that there is a way to integrate what you learn from the book into your method of working. Think about your craft as an actor and how these ideas can be added to augment your existing practice, rather than changing the essence of your process.
Above all, I have one simple suggestion for you in terms of approach: ‘Make it your own.’ You are much more likely to use what you own for yourself, and taking ownership is crucial to deriving real value from what you are about to experience.
On a personal note, there’s something that I have always loved about acting: the playfulness and impact it has in the way it creates and recreates imaginary characters and worlds, and gives audiences experiences that can elicit a feeling of entertainment and a sense of reflection. It can even be a catalyst for change. My hope for you is that you approach learning your lines with that same intention. Get creative, make it meaningful and you’ll make it memorable!
‘Use it to create something that feels personal and specifically yours’ – Learning Your Lines by Mark Channon
This is an edited extract from Learning Your Lines: The Compact Guide by Mark Channon, published by Nick Hern Books.
Mark Channon trained and worked as an actor for many years, including at the National Theatre and in the West End, before becoming a Grand Master of Memory at the World Memory Championships. He now works as a trainer and coach in Memory and High Performance, and has written several books on memory improvement.