My Mind Boggles

My mind boggles at my own mind. I am amazed at my memory. I mean, I am getting older—this stuff is supposed to get harder as you get older, right?

I just finished putting my costume and props for my Christmas play, Merry Christmas, Mr. Jones, into storage for another year. Every year around Thanksgiving I take them out and plan for a rehearsal before my next season of performances of this beloved piece. I have been doing the play every December for over 25 years. Each year I am anxious as I go into rehearsal. I am sure I will have forgotten my lines in the 11 months since I last spoke these words. I set the script nearby, just in case I need it as I walk through the show, recalling lines and motivation and movement. Except for a couple momentary pauses, mostly on lines that are similar to another line in the play, I make it through without even opening the script. I do a quick scan of the script just to be sure..

“Yep I said that… and that…yep remembered that too.”

Mind boggling, right? I have addressed memorizing a few other times in this blog here and here. But one of the principles I learned early in my acting career was the importance of owning my lines—knowing them so well that I don’t have to stop and think, “what comes next?”

Stop for a moment and just think about all the stuff in your brain that fits that definition. Everything from the alphabet and numbers to addresses, phone numbers, nursery rhymes, The Lord’s Prayer, The Pledge of Allegience and certain scriptures. We have intentionally crammed a lot of stuff in to those brain cells. And that doesn’t even address the stuff we recall that we didn’t intentionally memorize. Think of song lyrics, movie lines, bits of conversations…our brains are amazing.

A few years ago I was on tour in New Zealand. I was performing at a ministers’ retreat and one of the speakers was talking about the importance of continuing to repeat certain creeds, prayers and scriptures in the church service as a part of liturgy. The concern was that in becoming more contemporary as a church, we are neglecting these elements that the speaker felt were essential. They went on to share that often people on their death beds and even at the scene of life threating accidents will default to quoting these often repeated–memorized lines.

Interesting that in our final moments, these things in our memory can be called up to give us comfort. Of course that assumes that we have placed them there to be called up in the first place.

That gives me pause…the old theories of “what goes in must come out” or “garbage in, garbage out” come to mind.

I haven’t intentionally memorized anything new in a while.

I’m going to ponder that as I put Mr. Jones on the shelf for another year.

To Memorize or Not To Memorize

I went to see a performance of an actor performing a straight scripture presentation.  He was a good performer and commanded the stage well.  But after a while I found my  mind drifting. When he finished reciting scripture, he told a story about his own life and totally drew me in.  He was so much more interesting to listen to when he just shared his story than when he was quoting from a book of the Bible.

I left feeling conflicted.  I actually felt a bit of guilt at having lost interest during the presentation of scripture.  I mean, this was God’s Word after all! I also pondered why I found his story more compelling than his actual performance.  My conclusions:

  • When he was reciting scripture he sounded “memorized.” And while I am an advocate for memorized lines, I don’t like it when a performer sounds memorized. Memorized lines, be they in a play, scripture, speech or sermon, should sound natural and conversational. To the audience it needs to sound like you are saying these words for the very first time. (For a great example of an actor performing scripture and sounding natural check out my associate Steve Wilent in According to John.)

    Steve Wilent in According to John

  • When he told his story, it felt spontaneous and authentic. I didn’t get the feeling it was a script. Since it was his story, he knew it well so there was no danger of not knowing what to say next (as in a forgotten line). I cared more about what he had to say because it was more personal.

In my previous blog I addressed memorization from an actor’s perspective. Actors must memorize lines word for word in a script.  But what if you are speaking or giving a sermon? Does that text need to be memorized?

The answer…. it depends.

If you are a speaker who is giving the same, or mostly the same, speech or sermon to different groups on a speaking circuit, you will probably want to memorize it.  Truth is, you probably have memorized it… maybe even without trying.  You will work with the text and wind up saying the same thing over and over again.  This can actually be a very good thing… providing you don’t start to sound memorized! You will also learn and tweak your presentation as you gain experience. You learn, for example, that phrasing a sentence a certain way gets a better response (a laugh, applause, or stunned silence).

But what about those of you who are pastors coming up with a new sermon every week? While a few of you may actually memorize the sermon, most of you don’t. My hat’s off to you who come up with new material week after week.  The challenge before you is to present your material in a compelling way. Since you are not memorized by rote, there is not much danger of your sounding memorized.  But neither do we want to see you simply read to us with your focus on your notes instead of your audience.  It is important that, while you may not be memorized, you need to really know your material. So in a sense some of the rote memorization techniques of reading the material over and over again can certainly be of benefit.

I am always impressed with those pastors who can deliver a powerful sermon without notes!  I chatted with one of them recently about how he does it.  As a storyteller, it was no big surprise that much of the technique he employed involved translating the text into story. Much of the memory technique involved linking images to the text and thus allowing the pastor to be note-free and greatly enhance his ability to connect with the audience.  This video helps to explain the memory system he uses:

Actors, comedians, and professional speakers all know the value of rehearsal.  In talking to pastors I find that many of them also rehearse their sermons, and… many of them don’t.  I can usually tell the difference.  I know you are busy people, but  I encourage you to find the time to rehearse your sermons.  In our increasingly entertainment-oriented culture, with our increasingly shorter attention spans, your challenge is to hold our attention.  To do that effectively takes practice!

Pastors, do you memorize your sermons?  What tips can you share for effective sermon presentations?

I Vant To Remember My Line

I remember the first big acting role I had in high school. The play was Dracula and I was cast as the title character (and no, it wasn’t type casting!). I so wanted to make a good first impression on my director and fellow cast members that as soon as I got the script I rushed home and began immediately memorizing my lines.  I showed up at the first rehearsal proudly gloating that I had all my lines memorized!

Chuck Neighbors as Dracula: "I vant to remember my line!"

Rehearsal began… and when it came time for my lines… the lines I had memorized… I was strangely silent. It was my turn to speak… but I didn’t know it. You see, while I had indeed memorized the words on the page, I had not bothered to read or study the rest of the text.  I could quote my lines like a monolog, out of context, but didn’t know where they fell in the sequence of the story.  In short, I didn’t know my CUES! Big mistake!

One of the questions that often comes up on this topic in my workshops is “do I have to memorize my lines word for word?” Lots of people don’t like my answer to this, but if you are an actor performing a script then the answer is “YES!” you must memorize word for word. There is both a philosophical reason for this as well as a practical reason:

  • The philosophical reason is that you are performing someone else’s writing. Most scripts will have a disclaimer that the text can’t be changed without written permission from the writer or publisher.  (Just imagine going to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet; you are waiting for the famous “To be or not to be” speech and the actor says “be something or don’t be something, ya know?” ) Your job is to interpret the text, not rewrite it.
  • But equally important is the practical reason. It goes back to my big mistake in playing the famous Count. Lines are memorized based on cues.  If I don’t say my line as it is written in the script, there is a good chance the person I am on stage with won’t know how or when to respond with their line. And if I have changed the cue, the line they have memorized may no longer make sense. Changing cue lines is a recipe for forgotten and missing lines in a performance! Don’t do it!

Here then are a few tips on how to memorize:

  • Read the script! At the risk of being redundant—read the script. Read it first to get a good understanding of the story. Read it again to gain insight into your character. Read it again for understanding of other characters and their interaction with your character. Read it until you can tell the story of the script in your own words.
  • Highlight your lines so they stand out on the page.
  • Using a blank sheet of paper, cover all the lines and slide the paper down—a line at time—as you work on each of your lines.
  • Memorize out loud. Say the lines as you plan to say them in character, thinking the  character’s thoughts as well. Say your lines AND the cue lines (the other person’s lines) out loud. While not consciously trying to memorize the cue lines, if you use this method you actually will!
  • Only after you can respond with the correct line, word for word, do you move on to the next line. Begin again at the top with each new line you memorize.
  • Memorize on your feet. Keeping your body moving gets your blood pumping, helping to keep you alert and focused. Pace, or if you know the blocking (stage directions), practice it at the same time.
  • As soon as possible get the paper out of your hands and practice the lines with another person giving you the cue lines audibly. Ideally the other cast members, but if that is not possible, anyone who can read will suffice. If you don’t have another person to work with, use a tape recorder.

Memorization is my least favorite part of my craft.  I hate memorizing (especially when it comes to 30 pages of monolog in my one-man shows), but I will tell you that I love BEING memorized. Nothing can make you feel more confident in performance than the secure feeling that you know your lines.

Have a tip or suggestion on memorization you can share?

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