Memory Training for Actors: Close To The Tipping Point

by Garrett Ayers

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

It was the summer of 2010. A few months earlier, I had been awarded a year-long fellowship at an award-winning regional theatre.  Before the gig started, I was invited by the theatre’s artistic director to observe rehearsals for the premiere of a play she was directing in New York. Of course, I said yes.

As rehearsals moved along, it became very evident that the female lead was having an enormously challenging time remembering her lines. At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, it was almost charming (she was a seasoned vet with a large personality). But as we crept closer and closer to opening, the truth (and her terror) became undeniable:

She couldn’t remember her lines.

In the actress’s defense, the text was elliptical, non-linear, and dense. And in this play, her challenge was magnified by the fact that she spent virtually the entire play in a bed. Oh, and this actress was also in her 70s. So add her age, the text, a lack of blocking/choreo together and this all conspired to make it a bear of a show to memorize. I felt terribly for her and wished there was something I could do…

By the end of previews and even into the run of the show, the artistic team resorted to placing two huge flat screen monitors in the booth to act as teleprompters. This process (and this actress’s struggle) left a huge impact on me.

Throughout this process, I began to ask myself why memorization, one of the fundamental skills all actors must perfect, is not taught? It didn’t make sense. And so I began looking into it, hoping to find some example in some book of some teacher teaching actors how to remember. I couldn’t find one. Not in any acting book, history book, not online. My curiosity was peaked for action, but by that time I was headed off for my fellowship. The answers to my questions would have to wait, or so I thought.

During the next year, I was the resident assistant director for the entire mainstage season. The first show I was assigned to was a new stage adaptation of The Iliad, a one-man show which demanded that, aside from memorizing everything else, the actor playing the role of The Poet recite a 4-page long, single-spaced list of many, if not all, of the wars fought since the beginning of recorded time.

I know…

The actor cast was a total pro and worked his ass off. And I, along with several others on the team, stayed after rehearsals every night drilling his lines. As you can imagine, a lot of time was spent on that list of wars. I felt like I was gifted this opportunity, but still didn’t have answers. I would sit there watching, trying to invent or perceive hooks that would allow him to remember more consistently. Through a ton of time and hard work, he eventually memorized it, of course. But he later confided in me (and with audiences at post-show talkbacks, if you can believe!) that he went out on stage “knowing” that he probably wouldn’t get all of the names right. His candor and honesty floored me, but there was still a nagging frustration and a deep conviction that there had to be a better way of approaching memorization.

Fortunately, the rest of my fellowship provided countless situations and opportunities to engage with actors dealing directly with memorization issues. How to remember technical, medical language in a world premiere play about evolutionary biology (yes, you read that correctly)? How to remember “doctor-speak” in a new musical? How to remember countless cuts, additions, and script changes…in the same new musical. No matter the situation, memorization was an increasingly arduous challenge, especially (and I was surprised by this) for the younger actors.

After the fellowship, I was hired to direct a new translation of Spring Awakening at a university cast with undergraduate actors. The students had an unbelievably hard time memorizing the text. After that, I directed Prelude To A Kiss at a regional theatre that hires about 50% community/non-equity and 50% equity actors. Same problem.  That was it. By that point, I had officially encountered this difficulty in virtually every possible venue: Broadway, award-winning regional theatres, universities, and quasi-community/regional theatres.

This was not a fluke.

After Prelude closed, I decided to take a break from directing and dive into my own research on human memory, reading tons of books, studies, and even going through a memory training program myself. I learned a ton about the process of remembering, as well techniques, principles and strategies that one can use to improve the memory. Using my research and what I had picked up/invented working with actors myself, I decided to tackle that list of wars from Iliad as my first test.

I memorized it in 3 hours, backwards and forwards. I was floored.

I then began applying the methods to different texts and scenarios and found them equally effective in every case. Since then, I’ve continued my research and earlier this year founded a website, HowToRemember.com, dedicated to teaching actors how to train and improve their memories. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something more important with the potential to exert such a profound impact on our field. It has the potential to make the lives of actors better and elevate the work of everyone in the theatre arts.

Why? Because we are slowly forgetting how to remember. And, while this may not be a big deal to the average Joe with an iPhone, it should make every theatre artist sit up and take notice.

Our brains are constantly being molded and re-shaped by the tools and technologies we use on a daily basis. Whereas, in the past, printed books served to focus our attention and promote deeper immersion, now digital technology imposes rapid speed and small bits of information, and endless distraction. Now, I am not one of those doomsday guys. Not even close. I love the internet. I love my computer. I love technology. But all of this wonderful innovation is not free. It always costs us something. And one of those costs is memory.

I can understand why, in the recent past, learning or training memory wasn’t deemed “necessary.” Remembering used to be a cultural necessity. It’s not anymore. Why remember anything when you can just google it on your smartphone? For many of us, there is very little that we have to memorize. Think about it: how many phone numbers do you know by heart? How many mailing addresses? How many formulas? Dates? Facts? Probably few, maybe none. And why should you? It’s not necessary. For actors, until they implant memory chips in humans, the ability to remember is a bedrock skill. Without it, actors can’t do their jobs.

I’m convinced that memory training must become an integral part of actor training if our field seeks to not only “keep pace,” but truly lead in terms of innovation, ideas, and craft. Perhaps we haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but we’re close. How much longer will we be able to get away with it?


Ayers TCG headshotGarrett Ayers has worked for over a decade as a professional director, teacher, and acting coach and has trained or collaborated with some of the world’s foremost theatre companies, including The Wooster Group, The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski & Thomas Richards, SITI, and others.

In addition to his work as a freelance director, Garrett is the founder of HowToRemember.com and teaches as an adjunct theatre professor at Colorado State University. He is an Associate Member of SDC, a member of the 2009 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and was the Charles Evans Fellow (Directing) at the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ for their 2010-11 Season. M.F.A. Naropa University.

He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and three children.

  • Alphonse

    Yes!