How Do Actors Memorize So Much?

Something I have wondered about for some time now but was afraid to ask. Then while I was having Christmas dinner at my cousin’s house, someone else actually brought it up.

How do actors apparently methodically memorize so many words?

This could apply to many shows and movies. But for some reason I was thinking of Star Trek: the Next Generation.

There’s like, what, a couple hundred shows? And they have to memorize about 50 minutes of dialogue (accounting for commercials)? Assuming they use just rote memorization and still remember it to this day, that is a lot of (presently) inert information.

Again, how do they do it?


One scene at a time…

And really, not even one scene at a time since a single scene can consist of several cuts; some of which may need several takes. It doesn’t seem difficult at all to memorize a sentence or two, then shoot it.

It’s their job.
This may seem like a flip answer at first, but it really is just that simple. How do you memorize everything you have to do for your job? And the answer is the same for actors. It’s situational. they don’t just rote memorize entire scripts, they memorize it in layers.
And as Bear_Nenno says one scene at a time. First, you get the basic gist of the scene; is it a love scene? fight scene? comic? sad? Is it between just you and one other character or many? Then you get more specific; the scene is about your character arguing with the captain over the prime directive. And you’ll run thru the scene a couple of times as the director decides what kind of shot it is; close up or long. and what the lighting and sound and any special effects are.

The actors dont just sit in their room and memorize entire scripts on their own and then come together and do the whole show. Even in plays where the actor eventually does have the whole thing memorized and performs it each night they will learn it in layers.


What exactly makes you think they still remember it? I’m quite sure most actors couldn’t even tell you the basic plot of all the episodes they were involved in, let alone all their lines or even everyone’s (which make up the 50 minutes of run time). Unless they rehearsed it very thoroughly (unlikely given their production schedule) they probably remember very few individual lines.

We’re currently watching Mad About You reruns and there’s an episode which was one complete take.

Several movies have been filmed that are a small number of takes.

Then there’s Timecode. 4 simultaneously filmed 93 min. segments spliced into a 4-frame film. They got it right on the 15th try.

I am amazed.

OTOH, Mrs. FtG this morning recited about half of The Cremation of Sam McGee. She knows several Robert Service poems by heart. OTOOH, poetry tends to be a lot easier to memorize. Hence the old bards/saga stuff.

Some people can do this automatically. Some never can. Many can learn to do it somewhat.

It’s there job as has been said. And I think it’s also about anyone they are acting with. Following their lines. Some of the best lines where made up out of the blue because the actor did not know what to say.

Have you ever acted in a play? When I was in seventh grade, we were required to, once a month for a luncheon theatre attended by other students and parents. The plays selected were “real” ones from literature, not simplified or watered-down kids’ versions. And the school was just a run-of-the-mill public institution, not some fancy theatrical school for gifted children. Somehow everyone managed to memorize their lines. We might not have been the best actors, but it was exceedingly rare that anyone needed to be prompted during a performance. It really isn’t as hard as it looks. If a bunch of 12-year-old kids with no prior training can do it, then it must be a piece of cake for professional actors. This goes double for films and TV shows where you go through the script piecemeal (and often several times over and over again) with lots of breaks to consult the script.

The lil’wrekker is in a theatre club and has meaty parts in every production they do. She has rote memory. Memory enhanced by the acted out conversation on stage. Cues, like staging and characters on the stage. And …cheat sheets. It comes pretty easily to her. I could never do it. I can’t remember what I said 2 min. ago.

With the exceptions like Mad About You and such noted, whatever gave you the idea that every actor is talking every second of air time? Even in a character-centric episode, I think you’ll find that the actually time spent on dialog is more than quite a bit less than that. Stage work is a lot harder because there aren’t any retakes. Even there you just take it scene by scene. Heck, I think I can do most of the interp pieces I coached 30 years ago! Complete with blocking. Just takes practice.

One point is that for the most part the roles have a logic to them; it is not just rote memorization. And in live performances they have prompters and if they get a line wrong, so what so long as they get the gist right.

It is not the same thing but if you ever heard me give an hour lecture without notes, you might think I’ve memorized it. But of course I haven’t. I know what I want to say and the logic of it carries me through.

I still know Jabberwocky, The Cremation of Sam McGee and the old announcers’ test (one hen, two ducks, three squawking geese…) by heart. Sometimes ol’ rote memory is long-lasting.

On the other hand, your fellow actors tend to find it annoying during a dramatic scene when you come out with “All mimsy were the borogoves”. :slight_smile:

I read Bette Davis memorized whole scripts and was able to prompt other actors who were fluffing their lines.

As another way of expressing the point made above about context, I once heard an actor explain that he memorised emotionalflows, and the words just stuck to that.

As others have said, for tv and film they generally only shoot a few lines at a time. They memorize the lines, say them and then promptly forget them.

For plays, it’s just lots of practice. When the play is over and they are on to the next one, they no longer have the first whole play memorized. They could probably re-remember it fairly quickly though.

I took an Intro to Drama class in college. The final was for two of us to do a scene in a play together. I thought that I would never remember the whole thing but with lots of repetition, it was very easy. One line prompts the next one so it’s much easier than memorizing a huge block of text.

From my experience in plays (six of them, from various years of school, including two as the lead): Forget about memorizing words. Memorize lines. It doesn’t matter if you get the words wrong, as long as the lines are correct, and a line is nearly as easy to memorize as a word, anyway.

As an example, if I say “He’s the man that shot my pa!” instead of “That’s the man who shot my pa!”, I’ve got the words wrong, but the line is still right. It doesn’t matter.

And yes, sometimes actors get the lines wrong, too. If it’s in the middle of a speech, almost nobody will notice (I do notice, occasionally, when watching Shakespeare, because I’ve memorized a few Shakespeare speeches, but I have to assume it happens just as often with speeches I don’t know as with the ones I do, and I’ve never noticed anything for them). And if it’s in dialog, well, that’s why movies take multiple takes, and that’s when live stage actors get to find out how good their improv skills are.

I remember reading an anecdote about one actor(or actress) who had worked in television and movies for years and had never done any sort of live theatre. They were giving an opportunity to perform on Broadway and were surprised to learn they actually had to memorize a script. Apparently they had mostly been reading off cue cards for most of their acting career. Does anyone else remember hearing this story?

When Richard Dreyfuss appeared in a play at the Old Vic in London, he generated a lot of controversy because he wore an earpiece, reportedly because he couldn’t memorize his lines.

I also recall Marlon Brando mostly read his lines off cue cards (at least at the end of his career).

Sometimes stage actors don’t make good movie/TV actors and vice versa because of the different set of skills needed. If you remember Roc in which the main actors were all accomplished stage performers, there was an odd predetermined presence in the on-screen characters. The show was great, but the characters seemed less real life. There were even a number of episodes done live, touching on topics in the news that day.

In the live shows, there were some odd pauses as the actors were clearly waiting for their fellow thespians to say or complete their lines. Perfectly fine for a live stage viewing, but generally not suited for repeat TV viewing.