How do actors memorize all those lines anyway?

Actor Leigha Horton has a multi-faceted memorization routine. It involves reciting, writing, and recording the lines.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

Every job has its own tedium and drudgery. The stage performer's burden, of course, is memorizing all those lines. So how do they do it?

In acting circles, a common joke is how theatergoers tend to react to a performance. Many times, the first question actors get is how they remember their lines.

Find out how more actors remember their lines at State of the Arts.

"It's either that or it's 'I just loved your facial expressions,'" one actor said.

Clarence Wethern
Clarence Wethern pours over a script in a Minneapolis coffee shop. He prefers to memorize his lines in public because he gets too distracted at home.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

In the thespian-saturated Twin Cities, you can't swing a stick without hitting an actor learning their lines. It's just that some have become pretty good at not drawing attention to themselves.

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Clarence Wethern is one of those actors. You'll often find him at his favorite Minneapolis coffeeshop, mumbling in Elizabethan English.

His apartment's only a block away, but Wethern prefers to practice in public. If he stays home, he's easily distracted. If he comes here, though...

"Then it feels like going to work I guess, and it feels like I'm going to do something, I guess, and I get more invested in it," he said.

Amidst all the caffeinated hipsters too glued to their laptops to notice, Wethern transports himself back several centuries. He's preparing for his role in "The Spanish Tragedy" by Shakespeare contemporary Thomas Kyd. He'll also be in a comedy running almost simultaneously called "Adventures in Mating." For Wethern, it's definitely manageable.

"I'm not scared of a large line load, and I think I can usually get it done pretty quick," he said.

Mo Perry
Mo Perry learns her lines while working out at her health club. She says it's important to engage all of her muscles--even the mental one.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

"Think of your favorite song. Do you know all the words? Most likely you do."

Actress Leigha Horton said learning lines is like memorizing the lyrics to a favorite song.

"Do you know all the words? Most likely you do," she said. "And most likely you know all the words to your ten favorite songs, and [if] you repeat anything enough you'll remember it."

Horton takes a multi-pronged approach to memorization. She'll scroll down the page line by line with a piece of cardboard. She'll write down what she has trouble remembering. She even records all the lines and listens to them in her spare time.

"And I think by doing it in such completely different ways, I'm bound to make something stick," Horton said.

Leigha Horton
Leigha Horton focuses on learning a script. She says if you can memorize the lines to your favorite songs you can memorize the lines in a play. It's about repetition.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

Another actor, Mo Perry, who works out her memory muscles along with her other muscles.

On a health club elliptical machine, Perry breathlessly runs through her lines for an upcoming Mixed Blood Theater production. For Perry, who thinks of herself as an extremely restless multi-tasker, memorizing on the machine is not just an efficient use of time.

"It helps to activate other senses while you're remembering," she said. "So when your mind does go blank, for some reason your right calf remembers."

That's why the actual rehearsal process is where Perry said the lines really become engrained, because you're associating movement on stage with the words on the page. But most actors, like Steven Epp, feel memorizing lines is the least of their hurdles.

"You're only really able to enter that level of the character or the journey of the play or the emotional moments when you're beyond, so beyond thinking about the lines," Epp said.

Epp jokes that all this memorization will either lead to a healthier brain down the road or is what he calls the fast track to senility.

It's the former, said Elmhurst College acting professor Tony Noice. Noice put together a four week acting course he's taken into senior living centers across the country, funded by the National Institutes of Health. After four weeks of acting exercises and short scene portrayals, Noice says seniors perform much better on all cognitive tasks.

"We test them exhaustively on eleven different measures, before they go in and then after they come out, after the four week course, and the results are quite staggering," he said.

That may be a distant payoff for 31-year-old Leigha Horton, who admits there's little glory in memorizing lines.

"Except for the glory you get from people saying 'how did you do that?'" laughs Horton.