Exercise: The Fast Track to Script Memorization

Erin Fossa

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Doing theatre in my late 20’s is much more complicated than it was in college. Rather than having several hours a day to memorize lines like I did back then, I’m lucky if I get an hour. Between motherhood, potty training, housework, running errands, going to the gym, church, cooking dinner and (oh yeah) my work-from-home day job, I might be able to find an hour or so to actually sit down alone… but I usually fall asleep the minute I open the script. 

My rehearsals for Steel Magnolias start in a little over a month and it’s time to kick memorization into gear. Steel Magnolias is an extremely dialogue heavy show. Like a good little actress, I want to show up memorized so I can concentrate on blocking and character work during the rehearsal period. But I simply do not have the time for repetition, and quiet concentration sends me straight into sleepy land… sweet, sweet sleepy land… 

Anyway, I decided to try a technique for memorization that worked well during my college days. But before I put it into practice, I did some research to see if there was any scientific merit to my experience. Sure enough, science backed up my theory better than I could have hoped. 

My theory is this: Memorizing lines while exercising significantly increases the productivity of your time. 

I call it the “memorization fast track”. Because it appeared to me that if I worked on my lines while on the elliptical or even the treadmill, I was able to absorb so much more than if I just sat down to read. And it’s true, the brain is much more active during exercise than at any other time, even times of deep concentration! This image from the University of Illinois shows a brain scan that illustrates this difference: 

Exercise has so many benefits, particularly to us as performers. Core strength is the foundation for proper breathing, supported singing and speaking, and strong movement on stage. And now, I’m finding an amazing connection to our work off stage as well. When you increase the amount of oxygen to the brain (which is what happens during exercise), your brain will actually create new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the area involved in learning and memory.  

So how do you do this practically? Well obviously you have to pick the right exercise. Exercises that elevate your heart rate such as the elliptical, the treadmill, the stationary bike, or even jumping jacks and jump squats will all do this for you. Put your script out in front of you to glance at and alternate between reading and reciting from memory. Using this technique, I’ve been able to absorb up to an entire act in one 30 minute period. 

If you don’t have access to exercise machines and aren’t particularly fond of gym memberships, try exercising and then memorizing immediately afterwards while many parts of your brain are still active. Go for a run or even a brisk walk and then pick up your script while you’re cooling down. Do an exercise video on mute and recite your monologue while you follow along. Do whatever you can to elevate your heart rate while intentionally memorizing your dialogue and I guarantee you’ll be able to recall those words so easily on stage. 

I could harp on the importance of daily exercise for so many reasons, but this one is both practical and beneficial to your health. Trust me, once you get a taste of those endorphins, you’ll want to exercise even when you’re not memorizing a script. Combined with good nutrition and adequate sleep, you may never find yourself asking, “What’s my line?!” again. 




Klein, Sarah. This is What Happens to Your Body When You Exercise. The Huffington         Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/04/body-on-exercise-what-            happens-infographic_n_3838293.html

Widrich, Leo. What Happens to Our Brain During Exercise (and Why it Makes Us
    Happy). Life Hacker. August 27, 2012. http://lifehacker.com/5938216/what-