Kevin E. West

Acting Skills: Memorization Basics

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Are you struggling to memorize your lines for an audition? Here are some helpful hints to lock it down!


Over my career, I’ve been asked about memorization hundreds of times…

“How do you memorize your lines?”

“Do I need to memorize all my lines?”

“Is there a cheat technique…?”

And my reply is usually … “FIRST, CAN YOU MEMORIZE…?” 


Full disclosure.


I can memorize very easily. It’s a skill that was identified in grade school and has served me well. Some of you reading this might be just as lucky. If not, read on to what I consider a VERY basic look at memorization.


(Note: There will be other more “heady” articles on the subject)


For our industry, in professional performance terms, yes there are times when you HAVE TO memorize and times you don’t. So, rather than have an actor-anxiety attack let me give you a few, really simple ways you can use to start to improve your memorization skills.




Yes, there are some useful, tried and true cold reading techniques that you will adopt as you move through your career. Here though, if you’re going to audition for TV, movies, or the stage, memorization will be required.

And that’s our livelihood. We go from learning an entire Shakespeare role of three simple lines of commercial copy. The only difference here is the amount of prep time we are provided.



While this may be a terribly unpopular way to start, I’m telling you it will be the best learning and solution tool for memorizing you’ll ever have!


Take the sides you need to memorize and WRITE IT ALL out by hand on paper. I used to write out ten (10) pages of complex theater scenes nightly per my acting coach. This process, for which many studies have been done, is a proven way to have  ANY material sink into the portion of your brain utilized for memorization…It’s called.. the…uh…uh…uh…


Hmmm. In my minds eye I see a hippo, so it must be the hippocampus.


FACT! Whew! Good thing I wrote that down!


Is this all time consuming? Yes! But often the material you need to memorize is long and that’s normal. So, do you want to kick butt at your next audition or on the set when you get page updates (happens all the time!) or do you want to remain in a place of constant actor stress? 


The latter, right? The cognitive learning that naturally occurs when you have to read material that you then write out for proper emotionally engaged recall is the most genius way to become better at memorization.



Did you know… IF you’re a SAG-AFTRA union member in the United States, memorization for auditions is NOT and cannot be required. 


Sure, it is always valuable to ‘know your material’ for artistic value reasons, but it’s not required within our union. So, if we don’t necessarily need to memorize ALL our lines for a professional audition, what should we focus on? 


Well, you WILL find it in the first and last lines of the material.


Here’s a thought. Remeber your first job? It’s the first day and you’ve just met your boss. Now stay there and reflect on any training or guidance they gave you. Do you remember how you absorbed the information and then demonstrated your “first-day” proficiency with it? 


Now, think about the encouragement you got and how it made you feel to simply implement a little bit of what your boss expected of you. You started to understand your role with just a few pieces of information. That positive feeling is the value of seeming to know a lot from just a little information and it’s a little like knowing the “first & last” lines of any piece of material. 


When the producers or casting FIRST see you engage either the actor to whom you’re relating or directly to the camera – they want to see how strong you are at the top with just the few lines and limited understanding of the story you’ve been given. You want to demonstrate you can confidently do the job with little pieces of information like your first days as a new hire!


Do you know what the two words that almost everyone will remember nearly all the time? The first and the last. It is called “primacy & recency” and it’s telling how our brains operate. So, use that while improving your memorization. With sides in hand, begin with memorizing the first and last lines cold and then add from there.



Wait… how many times have you heard that?


Essential for any memorization and recall is the valuable importance of a solid choice.  Address those core questions: Who? What? Where? Yes, there are more detailed guidelines for professional cold reading (we will address later), but the aforementioned questions are very helpful and do require specific answers. 


All performers have to believe what they’re saying. Once they’ve studied their lines, there is their process to make STRONG choices. How do they do that? In my experience, one of the simplest ways is to STOP when you get sides. Don’t jump right into reading the material and trying to memorize it. Take a moment to apply your training and artistic process to not only memorize the words, but to put them in your being!


I cannot emphasize enough the importance to read the material many times ALOUD to really arrive at the satisfactory choices you want the character to make. This truly creates a natural emotional connection to what is being said. Once you’re clear on the type and level of emotion you want to have with the material, you’ll find it is easier to connect with and memorize the words.



We know as actors we are likely going to get sides VERY similar to words we’ve likely used/experienced in real life. And more generally, in there, we might find a piece of material that will have a ‘trigger’ specifically for us. If so, that can be soooo useful. 


However, that’s not always the case.


An option with line memorization is to insert, situationally, a trigger not based on what the writer wrote, but what YOU feel. Make it something so emotionally powerful that it anchors you to the scene. It will make your performance riveting and make memorizing easier. That said, if you DO have sides for which there is a word or collection of words that TRIGGER you, focus on them first as it will help you memorize all those words surrounding them. I say this because there is always the strong possibility that you can be absolutely terrific playing a character or performing material that is not in any way related to the history of your life. I have done that many times, so whenever a piece of material DOES have some direct association with some aspect of your life — past or present — USE it in your favor for memorization.


A common acting tool is “substitution” and I want to be clear that this is not what I’m discussing in terms of memorization. Yes, it is possible to use familiarity AND substitution if it is applicable but for now, let’s just focus on a piece of material that strikes a chord with you from your life. Do not let that reverberation just pass by you upon first reading the material. What is evoked? Is it a place, a person or even a conversation with — amazingly enough — very similar dialogue! We are human beings and our minds recall moments which can sometimes make our memorization, audition and performance that much better! 



I could spend hours on how to become better at memorization, but genuinely the truth is, much like most of our actor lives, this is an incredibly individual process of learning. Memorization will be more natural to some than others, but your memorization skills will be improved greatly by the above list of options!