The Memory Chip

“How do you remember all those words?”

It’s a question civilians often ask of actors.  And the basic answer, save snorting ginkgo biloba on a daily basis, is “brutal repetition”.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Run your lines in the shower, in traffic jams, on the urine scented C train, while watching the Jets lose, during bad sex, during good sex, and while you’re dragging on that post-coital cigarette.

Run them into a mini-recorder.  Then run them again out the window to your neighbors.  They love your artistic process.  The “truly dedicated” dream about running them before they sleep.  And again before they masturbate in early morning.  All those words must come from you as if they were your own, and if anyone has a secret tip that takes half the labor and time, cough it up.

A poet friend confidently propounds that “repetition dulls the senses.”  He was referring to people’s life choices, essentially; their jobs, marital routines,salad dressings, and hackneyed ethnic jokes.  When I gave him my response, he applied it to acting too.  Repetition dulls the senses.  It’s the nature of the beast.

Though the statement applies to most activities, I don’t find it true for the process of acting.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Repetition heightens the senses.  Especially in the case of a solo show where one actor is the entire play.  I’d go so far as to say that all performing artists become stronger through repetition.  And that repetition is a necessity.

Learning Hamlet’s 1438 lines (roughly 12,000 words in the Pelican version) is a gargantuan undertaking and absolutely mandatory before you can delve into the part’s emotionality.  It takes months and months of repetition.  When those lines are virtually second nature, the actor can begin to explore the character’s inner life.  And that’s where the fun starts.

But there’s so much to manage at the top of the creative process that it’s daunting to the point of sleeplessness.  I’m not the only actor who’s had teeth grinding anxiety about it either.  The dream is always the same.  I’m backstage on opening night, peaking between the curtains.  The house is sold out.  My parents, close friends, reviewers, and casting directors are all buzzing in their seats to the pre-show playlist I’ve carefully selected.  I’m in full make-up and wardrobe.  My props are set.  The lights in the audience go to half, and that’s when I realize I’ve forgotten to learn my lines.

I’m totally screwed.  ABout to be humiliated.  My career is toast.  How could this have happened?

It’s a diagnosable fear.  Between getting the text word perfect, endowing all of the props as if they were your own, managing the costume changes without standing in front of 300 people with your fly open, hitting your marks so you’re properly lit, and timing your lines to fit into the pre-recorded sound effects, you sort of have your hands full.  Your lines aren’t the only aspects that must be repeated multiple times.  The more these elements are repeated, the less one is conscious of them.

There isn’t an actor alive who hasn’t destroyed the binding of play by whipping it against the wall, un-memorized.  It’s frustrating.  That’s what rehearsal is for.  We can’t wait to get off book so we can begin to play emotionally.  It’s repetition that initiates that freedom and even grounds it.

Repeating the lines.  Repeating your blocking.  Repeating your emotional cues and internal experiences, and all of the other things not written in the script.  And that’s all during rehearsal.  Once the show is on its feet in front of a live audience, it’s sort of a whole new ball game.  One that requires a world of repetition to master.

Does it all dull the senses?  Does it get old out there?  Are you ever bored?  No, man.  Not for a long, long time.  There’s way too much manage.  And once all that toil is figured out and hammered down, there is way too much fun to have.



  1. What about those of us who are sober?

  2. My friend just passed along to your site. A lot to dive into throughout… and pretty damn head-y. Was it Steve Martin who said, “I took just enough philosophy to screw me up for the rest of my life?”

  3. Super fun site!

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