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Should You Memorize or Read Text?

By • Mar 4th, 2009 • Category: An Actor's Advice

A character must often read something in a play. A letter. A passage from a book. Anything on paper which the plot requires him to process on the moment. An actor playing such a scene has two choices. To memorize the written material as he does all of his other spoken lines, or to have the written material actually printed on the prop from which the character will be reading. I advocate the latter.

Reading out loud can have an overly rehearsed quality to it when the words are memorized by the actor. Letters are often written by totally different characters, outside of the reader’s traits. Letters are frozen in one moment of time, and not dynamic as are snippets of conversation during a scene. Not to mention it seems a bit silly to hold a blank piece of paper in front of one’s face. The words you are reading might as well be there, if for no other reason than convenience.

Now, if you happen to be an actor who insists on memorizing a letter, and reciting it with a blank page in front of you, by all means do so. One can certainly sharpen the sense of spontaneity in such a case, just as one does when delivering dialogue. It is a matter of preference as I said. But I refuse to conclude that opting to have the writing in front of one makes one a lesser actor. I after all always strive to do excellent work. Excellent work, not extra work. Therefore, I have the writing on the actual prop page, and feel no shame in it.

But this is not about simple convenience only. It is about realism as well. I am convinced that the mental processes by which we converse with one another are different in subtle ways from those we utilize when reading something out loud. I therefore argue that attempting to memorize the written words of a script in the same way we memorize dialogue is not only more work, but also somewhat ineffective. A performance can only be enhanced when the brain is making use of the same processes when it is pretending as it is when it is truly engaging in an action.

My most recent acting experience illustrates this concept quite well. On Valentine’s Day, I took part in a reading of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. (see my blog for more details.) The script consisted entirely of letters that the characters had written to one another throughout their lives. The playwright himself included instructions at the front of the script book discouraging the actors from memorizing any part of the script. Why? For the very reasons I have mentioned here; memorization of the letters would risk making the entire presentation sound phony. As a result, my partner and I did not memorize anything, and rehearsed the piece only once. It was all part of preserving the realism of reading something directly from the page.

This may sound like method acting, and to an extent it is, though I do not endorse any given method for performers. Rather I have always advocated taking whatever steps one can to give any given scene the greatest illusion of realism as possible. To me, reading directly from written words does this.

Just make extra sure you check this prop twice each night. Winging it will usually look as false as over rehearsing.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs offbook.blogspot.com (for theatre related thoughts) and tooxyz.blogspot.com (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

2 Responses »

  1. Great column Ty. I’ve enjoyed reading all your columns and found this one particularly interesting since I am currently performing in David Mamet’s two-character drama Oleanna. In Oleanna, my character has to read from a student’s paper and also from a tenure committee report.

    You are absolutely correct that it’s completely up to the individual actor. Personally, I prefer to do both and that’s what I did in Oleanna. I memorized the lines just in case something happened to the props, but I definitely feel that actually reading the reports adds a sense of realism to my character and to the moment.

    And I don’t think that having memorized the lines beforehand in any dilutes that realism. It’s just a safety net.

    I do, however, think you were wise not to memorize Love Letters because reading love letters is very different from reading a report.

    Keep up the great writing and acting sir! 🙂

  2. I prefer to do both as well. I memorize letters to be read but also have a prop with the writing laid out. Sometimes props get lost, or altered if the props master or fellow actors are feeling mischevious.

    I share Jay’s belief that memorizing a letter beforehand does not dilute the realism. It’s up to the actor to make the letter-reading realistic, whether they’re actually reading it or pulling the words out of their memory. It all falls to the performance, Method or otherwise.

    Thanks for the column!