How to Memorize a Monologue: Your Quick and Easy Guide
Is learning how to memorize a monologue really fast and easy?
You bet! You just need a trained memory.
To be fair, there’s a bit more to it than that when it comes to verbatim delivery on a stage. I’m talking about the roles of research, context, practice and analysis.
And let’s be real for a moment. In order for anything to be fast and easy, there’s going to be a period of learning, training and analysis, followed by reflection on your practice.
This combination of factors is how the best actors and speakers rise to the top. It’s how you can receive a monologue and within twenty four hours recite it accurately and with verve. And it’s how you get invited back to speak or act some more.
So if you want to enjoy a career as someone who speaks from memory, using some examples, in this post I’m going to cover:
- Creating mental context to help your memory
- The Memory Palace technique
- Practice and analysis
- Performance and analysis
5 Strategies For Memorizing A Monologue
Let’s assume that we want to memorize two monologues from Shakespeare’s King Lear to show our range. We’ll pick one from Edmund and one from King Lear himself.
I suggest you head over to IMDB and YouTube to find some examples. One of my favorite filmed stage performances of King Lear is the 1974 Great Performances version starring James Earl Jones and Raul Julia.
Another great version is the 1983 Granada version starring Laurence Olivier and John Hurt. The more versions you can find, even just in the form of clips on YouTube, the more you can seep your mind in timing, intonation and spatial awareness that are useful for memorizing the lines.
Also, it’s a good practice to look into actors who have taken on such roles and listen to them talk about their craft. Anthony Hopkins has played King Lear and Brian Cox even wrote an entire book called The Lear Diaries. (Frankly, this book is worth reading for anyone who cares about reciting anything from memory, or just interested in theatre and movies.)
It’s also worth reading some critical analysis of the pieces that you’re memorizing. I’m not talking about PhD-level analysis. I’m only asking for you to use a bit of what my friend and fellow memory expert Jonathan Levi called “brute force learning.” Basically, this means that you’re rapidly building a basic cognitive field.
The seeds you drop into this expanded field (the words and lines you’ll be memorizing) will take deeper hold in your memory because you’ve developed a contextual framework. The more you practice this, the more connections you’ll have for each new monologue you memorize.
To give you an example, I have some history myself with memorizing monologues. I once prepared as the understudy for the role of Hieronomo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Although I was never called upon to perform, I went through all of the steps above and it was tremendously helpful for memorizing the lines.
The Memory Palace technique
To keep things simple, I’m going to limit this discussion to memorizing monologues for the stage. A film director may or may not require you to deliver an entire monologue without editing. Being able to consult a script between takes or redo your performance is a luxury rarely, if ever, desirable on stage – so let’s work together to make sure you always get it right the first time.
A Memory Palace is a mental tool that lets you combine familiar locations with information you want to commit to memory. You can use a home, library, bookstore, church or even your favorite walk in the park. If you’re familiar with where you’ll be speaking, you can use the stage and elements of the theatre too.
To create Memory Palaces for memorizing monologues, it’s best to assess how many you will need.
How many is that?
The answer is something each person needs to figure out on their own. But for the examples we’ll go through below (more Memory Palace examples), I would typically need only one per monologue. Each would need between 3-5 rooms.
Or I might use an outdoor Memory Palace for a freer experience, like this one:
Although a numbered Memory Palace like this won’t necessarily cover everything, it’s easy to “teleport” to a second one to finish your content.
To begin using such a Memory Palace, start in an area that lets you create a mostly linear journey that you don’t have to remember. That’s right: If you have to memorize your path through the Memory Palace, then it is technically not a Memory Palace. The whole point of this tool is that you never have to remember your path – it’s just clear and obvious as you move through it from room to room and intersection to intersection.
In this case, I would start in the room that is deepest in the apartment. This gives plenty of space to move outward, then outside of the apartment building and through the surrounding neighborhood.
Let’s talk about how to memorize a soliloquy using this example from Edmund in King Lear:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.
Now, remember when I said that research will help you?
Place your mnemonic imagery in the Memory Palace. Sometimes you can use one image for multiple words.
During the research phase, I reminded myself that Raul Julia played Edmund in a filmed version of King Lear.
With a Memory Palace in place, I use him to kick off the mental movie that will help me memorize the first words of the line, “this is the excellent foppery of the world…”
Now, you might be drawn to a completely different character, but the principles will be similar. What you’re trying to do is “paint” mental imagery on a no-brainer journey through remembered space in a way that helps you recall words.
In this case, I would see Raul Julia in the first room with Bill and Ted. Not only are they in a movie with the word “excellent” in it, but they say that word multiple times. Next, I think about John Fogerty for the word “foppery.” Now, fog and fop aren’t the same, but this is the close-enough principle many of us use to make our associations.
Next comes a process called elaborative encoding. To use it, we’re going to add some zany and crazy imagery to the mix. It’s not just that Raul Julia is saying “excellent.” I’m also going to imagine him crossing his new shiny claws like Wolverine from the X-Men series. Adding this visual image of an X compounds the sound of “excellent” triggered by having Bill and Ted.
I’ll then have John Fogerty dressed like a “fop” or dandy, trying to spin a globe on the tuning-head of his guitar. In this case, the globe triggers the word “world.”
Now, you might be thinking… hang on! This is going to take forever!
Actually, no. You just need to be prepared with the skills, which is why I created a powerful package for you. It will ensure that you can rapidly create the Memory Palaces and always have hundreds of mental associations ready to go on demand.
To optimize your speed of laying out the monologue on a word-by-word basis, I suggest you explore sticking with Raul Julia. In the Magnetic Memory Method world, we call this a Magnetic Bridging Figure.
It won’t always work, but if you think of your Memory Palace as a stage, and all of your images as players, you get to be the theatre director. If you get tired of associating different images with one figure as you follow them through your journey, switch in another.
You don’t have to use Bridging Figures. I certainly didn’t when I memorized this recent TEDx monologue I gave:
In this case, I worked solely on a word-by-word basis. In fact, I used the same Memory Palace you see illustrated above – something I’ve used many times over for different things I’ve memorized. For example, memorizing scripture.
Practice and Analysis
There are a few ways to practice what you’ve memorized. I recommend you combine them all for best results.
- Write out what you’ve memorized from memory.
I recommend everyone carry a Memory Journal. In it, you will draw your Memory Palaces and test your memory.
It’s important that the lines you memorized are nowhere in sight. You need to actively require your mind to recall the information with only the help of your Memory Palace. I suggest that you call the Memory Palace to mind first, then the first image, bringing back the exact words one at a time.
Then write the words down. Studies in learning based on active recall have shown that this is the best pattern for speeding up the memorization process. (The process is sometimes referred to as “far transfer” and you can hear my fellow memory expert, the neuroscientist Boris Konrad talk about it on my podcast. He’s also an award-winning speaker.)
Finally, after you’ve written everything out, check your accuracy against the record.
If you find any mistakes, this important:
Don’t freak out!
Just analyze the imagery you used and think about how you can correct it.
- Record what you’ve memorized verbally from memory.
These days, just about everyone has a phone with a nearly pro-level recording studio in it. Get out for a walk and recite out loud what you’ve memorized. Audio-only or audio and video are both fine.
As with writing, don’t cheat by looking at the monologue as you go. Bring it to mind, speak it out and then check for accuracy later.
- Recite during meditation.
Find a quiet spot. Sit. Clear your mind. Visit the Memory Palace and bring the information back to your mind.
In this version, there’s no way to check for accuracy, but if you’re doing all of these methods combined, you’ll know where you’re making mistakes. Developing this “mistake radar” is part of learning how to memorize any monologue faster.
As you go, it’s helpful to think about some of your research and the performances you’ve watched. They can add extra levels of rapid recall because you’re adding context and nuance as you go.
Performance and Analysis
The big day has come and it’s time to deliver your monologue. But that’s not the end.
For one thing, you’re probably going to perform it a few times. Why not take the time to improve?
Aspects to look for include all the things you want to notice other actors doing well with: timing, intonation, gesture and posture. If you wrote the monologue yourself, these features are also worth noting.
Also, by this point, you should be able to give the entire talk without even thinking about your Memory Palace. How is that possible? Well, the Memory Palace, when built and used well, is meant to be like training wheels on a bicycle. Once you know how to ride, the training wheels just fall away.
What if things don’t go so smoothly, however?
First, I would recommend making sure that your Memory Palace journey truly is simple and not drawing on your memory too heavily.
Next, examine your imagery. Is it evocative enough? Do you need to spend more time preparing the skills needed to make associations, such as working with the visualization exercises in the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass?
If you have a total breakdown during delivery, the best thing to do is pause, take a deep breath and let your mind return to the last thing you remember delivering. Even if you have to repeat a line you’ve already said to get back into flow, that is better than blundering further. I once experienced a panic attack while giving a film studies lecture in German and that simple willingness to repeat what I’d just said saved the day.
What Is The Fastest Way To Memorize A Monologue?
Again, it’s being prepared with the skills needed to do it and then practice.
The Memory Palace isn’t the only way. You can use associations without “painting” them on the surfaces of memory, something I discuss in the context of the wide range of mnemonic devices.
Other methods you can explore involve Anton Chekov’s suggestion that you use the body in different ways. For example, if your character is intellectually driven, you would place a lot of focus on your head. If your character is emotional, special psychological emphasis is placed on the heart area of the chest. And if the person is driven by more base survival drives like scarcity and hunger, the belly could serve as an area of focus.
You can also consult memory experts who have done more acting than I have. Mark Channon, for example, won the World Memory Championships and has a solid acting background.
No matter what technique you choose, the best and fastest way is the one you study and practice.
So if you really want the easy way to memorize monologues, being devoted to the craft is the ultimate secret.