Memorisation and Mnemonic Devices

Posted on 17 December 2012

Recently, I wrote a routine where I sell a time machine and, since this is comedy, things start going wrong. My character appears to be going forward and backward through time as people watch. As such, I have lines I say forward, then I say again backward. It was a memorisation nightmare, but I did it.

Also daunting is remembering an hour’s worth of monologue for a comedy festival show. How do people do it?

At some point all comedians are going to have to memorise stuff whether it be for a sketch, a play, or specific parts of your routine. And one day we may be able to stuff USBs into our ears and instantly have information pour into our brains. In the meantime I will share a few techniques I have found helpful in keeping all the words straight in your head.

Repetition, Persistence, Commitment

Those are three scary words. Just understand that the only way you are going to learn those lines is by repeating them a gazillion times. The tools and techniques will make things easier, but they will not replace drilling yourself on a regular basis.

If you have a couple months to memorise, you can often get away with repeating your lines once to twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening not long before you go to bed. The evening repetition is important. I have found that my brain then does a better job of integrating the lines into my memory as I dream over night. The next morning the lines are more readily available in practise.

If you have only a week to a few days, you will need to increase the repetitions. If things are tight, I will take the day before a performance off and recite my routine front to back every two hours. Between each practise I will go off and do something light and mindless, like clean the cat tray or sort the recycling. You need integration time, even when you’re cramming. It’s also worth taking one day off a week to give your brain a chance to rest, recover, rev up.

Flash Cards

Blessings upon the ACME Corporation or whoever invented recipe cards. These gems help you to break a show or scene up into bite size chunks and quiz your memory. I usually increase the font on my routine to 18 point, and increase the margins. I then cut the results into one to two paragraph segments and glue stick them onto numbered system cards (you don’t want to accidently spill them and not know what order they go in).

At first read out the cards without worrying about reproducing the lines yourself. Do this for a few sessions, then start seeing if you can remember segments without looking at the cards. Each session ALWAYS go through the entire set of cards without stopping. The tendency is to get stuck trying to remember the first couple cards right, then not properly learning the later cards. Finally, put the cards down and only refer to them when your brain isn’t cooperating.

If you are memorising a sketch or play, put your lines on one side of the card and the line to which you are responding on the other side of the card. You look at what the other actor will be saying to you and then you try to respond from memory. Side “A” of a card could have Philvolio say, “What ho thou unkempt scoundrel.” Side “B” would then have your line, “Thou wouldst be unkempt too, if thy father had set thee to pig wrestling.”

If a couple of sections prove particularly troublesome, carry those on you and give them a look and/or practise at different times throughout the day.

Recording Yourself

Record your routine and burn it onto a CD or download it onto a listening device of your choice. During the day you may not always be able to say your lines out loud, but you may be able to listen to them over and over again. On more than one occasion I’ve put a CD of my show in the car player. As I drive around running errands, I listen to myself and keep up with the lines.

It’s good to get your vocal stylings, pauses, and inflections right when you make this recording, because you will find yourself repeating what you have heard as you have heard it.

Movements

Become very clear on what movements you will be making with certain collections of words and consistently use them. This is part of “enriching” your memory. When you say the words, you will remember the movements, but it works in reverse after awhile as well. If every time you say, “The pickle juice has leaked into the boudoir”, you clap your forehead then clapping your forehead may very well help you to remember that line.

If you are performing in a specific location and practising your lines and movements in that space, remembering where you will be looking at particular moments will also help. If you always look at the picture of the Queen in the back left corner of the pub when you say, “Juju pops!”, looking at the Queen may nudge your memory of that line.

If you are performing in more than one venue, then it’s important to practise in more than one location. No longer having the same visual clues can be befuddling. So, if you can remember the same lines in your bedroom, on the train, at the park, you will be safer remembering the lines on an unfamiliar stage.

Writing to Remember

Before even beginning with the rote learning, you can make your life easier by writing in a memorable manner.

Poetic devices were originally created not just for their aesthetic value, but because it made it easier for poets to recite their lines in performance. Poetry was afterall once an oral art form.

I wrote my show Strange Blessings in rhyme and largely in anapestic meter. What’s anapestic meter? It’s the cadence Dr Seuss frequently used in his books, for instance: “In the faraway island of Salamasond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.” You hear it again in “A Visit from St Nicholas”: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

When you get into a certain rhythm, you know that a certain sort of word has to come next to continue the rhythm. Same thing with rhymes: if a line ends with “Nantucket”, you know the next line will have to end with something like “bucket”. You are giving your brain something to latch onto and prepare for.

Other devices include assonance and consonance. This is where you are repeating either vowel sounds or consonant sounds. Assonance: “Wee Pete reaches for the heated wheat.” Consonance: “Big boats on the blue bay bob and bounce briskly.”

This line from Bugs Bunny was relatively easy for me to memorise and use in a routine I did recently: “I eat aardvarks, armadillos, bears, boars, cats, bats, dawgs, hawgs, stoats, goats, yaks, and old gnus, but prefer duck.” Note how many poetic devices have been crunched into that idiosyncratic list.

Outline

Outlining is the favourite method for remembering standup routines. It’s about getting into the logic and organisation of your lines, so again, the next step will be obvious once you’ve taken the previous step.

Broadly outline your show. What are the primary topics you are covering every 10-15 minutes? Outline each topic: what is the logical flow from joke “A” onto joke “D”.

Let’s say your show is about fruit. The broad outline will be that your show will start with oranges and apples, move through to grapes and berries, then end with bananas. Under the topic of apples you will tell jokes about where apples come from, how they are grown, who eats them, and how you rate them on the fruit sexiness chart.

On a single recipe card (yay! recipe cards again!) you could give yourself these sorts of prompts:

Oranges
Apples

  • where / how / who / sexy rating

Grapes
Berries
Bananas

Conclusion

I hope the above is some help to you. Understand, anything that works for you is fine. Sometimes even making sure you have the same body chemistry on the night as when you were practising can give you a boost, for instance eating peanuts when reciting and then eating peanuts before you perform. Beyond that rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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