Along the way, I've picked up a few tricks and made up a few of my own, which I've shared with student actors I've coached from time to time, and I thought I'd share them with you all as well, dear readers.
Step 1: Relax
The brain works better when it's not stressed out, so, even if you're in a stressful situation, you've got to find a way to calm yourself down and let the brain do what it was designed to do.
I was once in a play that I had serious misgivings about doing almost from the first read-through. I did not trust the abilities of the director, the stage manager, or the producer. We were running blocking rehearsals (entrances, exits, where you stand for the theatrically-uninitiated out there) without knowing where any of the set pieces or even the doorways were going to be.
I was working a full-time job and going to school full-time as well, so my stress levels were pretty high already, and the lack of organization on the production was a great source of anxiety. I struggled with my lines in every scene right up until the week of the show (which was also a great source of anxiety for my fellow actors).
Finally, I just set aside some time to relax and take control of my thoughts. I took long, deep breaths and calmly assured myself that I had all the lines in my head already - I just needed to let them flow out.
Sure enough, on opening night, I didn't drop (forget) so much as a single line. Unfortunately, my fellow actors were so stressed out about me possibly forgetting my lines, they all had a heck of a time remembering theirs. Lesson learned.
Stress affects memory. Relax.
Step 2: Chop It Up
Whether it's scenes of dialogue or just one long monologue, it's going to be a lot easier to remember if you break it up into parts. For example, take a look at good old Hamlet's speech from Act 3, Scene 1:
Here we're working on memorization. Do what makes the most sense to your brain.
Once you've broken it down into parts, think about those parts as being stacked upon one another top to bottom. Once you've completed the first part, the second part is there waiting for you. You don't have to think about it while you're working on the first part, it's just there.
Now, the way to do that is to give each of the parts a "code." The code should be part of a logical pattern. The simpler the pattern, the better.
For example, since I know that I am more visually oriented, I like to use color. The simplest pattern of color I know is the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet or ROYGBIV. (Remember this from elementary school?)
So I grab some colored pencils and I mark up the page like so:
Then I memorize each piece separately, and I actually see the color in my head as I'm learning and reciting it. The smaller chunks are much easier to memorize, and my brain only has to focus on one color at a time - like a colored file folder. When I get to "and by opposing end them?", I don't have to remember that the orange part is next. My brain already knows that orange is next (ROYGBIV), brings up the appropriate file, and provides me with all of the information that I have already linked to that file.
Linking is the key. It doesn't have to be color. If you're more auditory, maybe it's "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do." Or if you're more tactile, maybe you slightly bend one finger as a link to each piece (unnoticeably, so as not to interfere with any blocking.) It's really all about whatever's going to work for you. The point is to let the monologue or scene become part of a list - allowing your brain to only have to focus on one item on the list at a time.
Step 3: Play With Your Brain
Repetition is obviously going to be key in remembering your script, but fun is going to be even more important. Your brain remembers things that it likes. Have some fun with the monologue. Say it fast. Say it really slow. Say it with a funny accent. Sing it. Play with the enunciation of the words.
Varying the way that you say the monologue does two things.
First, it keeps the piece fun and fresh, and your brain is less likely to get bored with it. Second, it prevents you from memorizing it in a set pattern.
But, Brady, I thought you said a pattern was good.
For memorization, a pattern is good. For delivery, a pattern has your audience noticing the interesting design of the ceiling tiles.
Also, memorizing your piece with a set delivery doesn't give you much flexibility in your character development, which, as I said, I'll talk about in another blog.
Now, this is just one way of tricking your brain into helping you remember a large amount of information. Obviously, there are many others, and, if you've got one, please feel free to share it in the comments.