Theatre Information

How Poetry Can Aid Memorization

By • Jun 3rd, 2009 • Category: An Actor's Advice

Even the most realistic plays are written with dialogue that somewhat transcends everyday speech. Many will argue this point with me, and I embrace the argument. Yet I maintain that most successful scripts are so because the way the characters speak is at least somewhat removed from the way you and I speak in our normal daily routines.

This means that an actor must practice memorizing such dialogue, internalizing it, and of course reciting it. The “wavelength” if you will, of stage dialogue is not the same as real talking. If this were not true, all the training an actor would need would be to talk all day about anything to anyone.

How I wish it were that easy. I’d have several Oscars by now.

My advice for keeping fit the particular facets of the brain most used by actors is to read and memorize poetry. As often as you can. One poem a week, if at all possible.

Poetry, even modern verse, by nature is another collection of words that takes a step back, or at least to the side, from regular everyday speech. It is stylized and packs much meaning into few words. When recited properly, a poem’s emotional tone ought to be very clear.

Sound like any other craft we know?

And when you do memorize a poem, don’t just pound the words into your head and spit them back out at the end of the week. Delve into the piece. Search for its cadence. See the imagery it is evoking in you. Own that, and pour it into the memorization and recital process you have going any given week.

Don’t be a hero with this. Entertain no illusions of memorizing a Walt Whitman epic in 6 days. (Unless you are a Method actor trying to experience a nervous breakdown first hand.) Five stanzas at most should do the trick. And make sure you try all kinds; light poems, edgy poems, old poems and modern. Run the gamut.

Why not simply memorize speeches from plays? Certainly, this is a useful exercise as well, for very obvious reasons. But just as fitness experts recommend a varied workout to optimize the benefits to the target muscles, I feel that variety is also key to enhancing the actor’s mental and emotional fitness. Poems are similar enough to scripts that they work the same synapses in our brains, but different enough to keep things interesting.

Even if you don’t get the poem memorized in the week, (though why shouldn’t you?) you have at least opened up yourself to new words and feelings. You may just find the extra culture alone can be an actor’s friend.

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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 (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.