Grandpa Smashes His Guitar or How to Learn Your Lines in Minutes

Nate Jordan

  • OnStage United Kingdom Guest Columnist

Lines. Most Actors spend weeks and months preparing for a role, adjusting their hair in the mirror, trying out a new gait in front of friends but what happens when you've been given the part and a newly printed script is sitting in front of you?  
This is especially important if you decide that your piece for a casting call is going to be George C. Scott's opening speech in 'Patton' or if you've been cast as the man himself in Henry V and need to deliver the infamous St. Crispin's Day speech. 
If you're an understudy or have been summoned to read for a part at the last minute, it can be especially critical to fix the lines in your head as soon as possible. 
Acting Coach Matt Newton, writing for the website suggests using a combination of installing a special app for his iPad for learning his lines, writing the lines down and the tried and tested method of running them through with a fellow Actor. 
While these methods can be handy, what if you wish to assimilate a large amount of lines and have all of five minutes to do it? 
Mentalist and Illusionist Derren Brown touches on some excellent memory techniques in his book 'Tricks of the Mind.'  In the past Brown has used memory techniques to win while playing ten Chess Grandmaster's simultaneously, as well as to memorise all of Britain's bus routes.  
In his book, Derren outlines his linking system, a way to link relatively obtuse and random objects mentally through using your visual memory. This allows for much better recall and he claims it is an excellent way to learn your lines.  
The advantage of this method is that it can be used to remember truly colossal amounts of information.  
Feel free to take a look at the list of ten random words below: 
1. Grandfather
2. Guitar
3. Plug
4. Hope
5. Tooth
8. Pump
9. Spark
10. Camera
Take some time now to read through these for 30 seconds. Then look away and try to write them down in order. How did you do? If you didn't recall all of the items in the exact order then you can use your visual memory to memorise all of these in a few minutes.  
The first item on the list is the Grandfather. It's important to visualise the first thing which comes into your head when you hear that word. For instance you may think of your own Grandfather or perhaps a famous Grandfather from TV, or perhaps a Grandfather clock.  
The next thing to do is to find a way to link this with the word guitar. An image of your Grandfather playing a guitar probably won't be striking enough to stick in your memory. The more violent, the more sexual, the more graphic the thing you visualise the better. 
In fact, in the book 'Moonwalking with Einstein', US Memory Champion Joshua Foer interviewed another memory master who confessed he had to stop using images of his sisters and mother in his linking system as the images formed were rather scarring..! 
As such it's best to make the guitar itself larger and brighter than normal e.g a bright red guitar with a diamond encrusted fret-board. You may imagine walking up to your Grandfather swinging it around his head like a scythe and smashing it on the ground in the vein of Rictchie Blackmore. 
The next word in the list is 'plug'. Again, this isn't too hard to visualise but it's important that this is done in such a striking way, it will remain fixed in your memory.  
One way to make sure of this is to make the plug gigantic - the size of a bath-tub for instance and have your Grandfather smash his plug against it.  
Another way is to add some shock factor to the image. Perhaps Granddad is feeling lonely and decides to get amorous with a plug socket. If this image of your own Grandfather plugging away at a hole in the wall is scarring, firstly please re-read the earlier advice regarding using members of your own family(!) but also rest easy in the knowledge that this is the point. 
It's also important to concentrate on how each image makes you feel, for instance you might be startled and duck when Grandfather swings a guitar at you like an axe.  
 Let's then put these words into a suitably grotesque story: 
I see my GRANDFATHER seated looking melancholy, strumming on a huge, red GUITAR. On seeing me he screams and swings it at my head, I sidestep in shock. Instead his guitar hits a PLUG socket and he starts juddering with the electric shock. The character of HOPE from one of my favourite TV shows 'Xena Warrior Princess' grabs him by the shoulder and pulls him away from the plug. He's still feeling vicious and so bites her on the hand. She snatches away but a huge TOOTH remains embedded in it. She's very distressed and runs to a nearby rusty PUMP to wash her hand. She pulls the old handle back and forth so much a SPARK comes out off the old metal. Grandfather apologises and offers her an antique Victorian CAMERA to make up for his earlier crankiness.  
Again if any of these images don't evoke powerful feelings for you, feel free to substitute them with one of your own. The camera for instance might not be an antique one as I would imagine - it might be one you used to have as a kid. Perhaps Grandpa decides to add insult to injury by bludgeoning poor Hope with it instead of trying to kiss and make up. You decide. 
Derren Brown recommends the linking system as an excellent way to learn lines. This is certainly true if you have already made an effort to learn them and simply want to remember words at key points in your speech, however it can pose problems if instead of the word 'guitar' for instance you need to use more complex words and/or adjectives. 
Consider Friar Laurence's first four lines in Romeo and Juliet: 
"The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,  
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light, 
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels  
From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels. " 
Words like "frowning" are much harder to visualise than "guitar". One way around this issue is to switch to a simpler word like "night" and hope from the context you'll remember the night is in fact "frowning." 
Another method which I prefer is to see if you can find a word which superficially resembles the word you want to use. For instance it might be easier to visualise an old Browning rifle (this has the advantage that it can shoot something or someone, so you can easily link it) or perhaps someone "fanning" someone else. 
It's important, at first, to read through your lines several times before attempting the linking system and find the keywords which are most significant to you. They may not necessarily be the hardest words to remember or visualise! Also it's a good idea to omit learning words like "and", "the" or "a" and trust to your regular memory to fill these in. 
Once you feel you have a good linking system in place, run it through in your mind and compare it to the text. If there are words that have been skipped, try to insert another image between the keywords you already have.  
For instance as I was memorising the lines while preparing this article, the first time I read them aloud I said, "Chequering the clouds" instead of "Chequering the Eastern Clouds." This is because I had visualised a large chequered flag like the kind used for race cars being wafted at several low-hanging cartoony clouds. Simply adding an image of a colourful Easter Bunny to the centre of the flag helped me to remember the clouds were in fact 'Eastern'.  
It can be great fun to impress your friends and family with this technique, given the truly colossal amounts of information you can regurgitate. You'll also find as time goes on that you need less and less time to read through the information. A stellar career in soap operas where memorising a daily script is a must beckons...!