Get-It-Done Guy's tips on how to quickly memorize dialogue, dance steps, speeches, and anything else you need to remember quickly.
Memorizing is hard, but we often need to do it, whether it’s for presentations, or concepts we’ll need to refer to, or that 20-minute wedding toast that everyone will remember. And nothing teaches you how to memorize words, movement, or song like musical theater.
Earlier this year, I played a dancing tree in Evil Dead: The Musical. It’s easy to play a dancing tree. You just stand around with a goofy, tree-like grin, and wave your branches. Finding your motivation? It’s easy. Just remember the party you had the night you reached drinking age. (Or don’t remember, as the case may be.) Now, I’ve been cast as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. It’s my first speaking part, and it’s a doozy. I have dozens of pages of dialogue to remember.
How to Memorize Quickly
My first instinct was to open page 1 and start reading. Then go back and re-read. And re-re-read, each time going a little further into the script. Eventually, I would know the whole script because I’d read it a gazillion times. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. And it was boring! By the time I’d memorized half the scene, I got sloppy, because going through the stuff I already knew was boring until I hit the new stuff. The new stuff, the interesting stuff, was always at the end.
Then I remembered what my mother used to tell me. She said, “Stever, always have your meals backwards. Eat dessert first. It’s the best part! And if you’re vaporized by an invading space army’s laser beam weapons halfway through dinner, at least you’ll have eaten the best part.” Is it possible that Mom’s advice would work here, too? Much to my surprise, the answer is yes!
Memorize from the End to the Beginning
For speeches, use the memorize-from-the-end technique to memorize the outline.
To memorize a long passage, I started with the last sentence: “I feel like a heel.” I repeated that until I could do it from memory. Then I added the sentence before it. “You are a good man, and I know you will take good care of Adelaide.” I rehearsed, “You are a good man, and I know you will take good care of Adelaide. I feel like a heel.” But that was too big a chunk to add at once. So first I added just “And I know you will take good care of Adelaide” before “I feel like a heel.” Then I added “You are a good man” to the front of that. I kept adding to the beginning until the entire passage was memorized.
For reasons I don’t completely understand, it was a lot easier. The hard part was up front, and as soon as I got through the new piece, saying the part at the end, which I’d already memorized, just reinforced it.
Memorize the Prompts and Cues!
I was so happy-go-lucky with my newly memorized paragraph that I decided whenever I wanted to be center stage, I’d just trot out my paragraph and say it proud and clear. Then the director informed me that I’m only supposed to say it once, and it has to be at a certain point in the play. Talk about a buzzkill!
If you’re memorizing a response to something—say, a toast you need to give at a certain point in a wedding ceremony—keep working backwards until you’re memorizing not only your part, but the cue line or event that comes right before your part. That way, you’ll know when to deliver your coup de grace. If you’re memorizing dialog, rehearse the other person’s cue line leading right into your line.