Memorizing For Auditions: Some Points To Consider.

Final Version*_HDR_editI remember when I first got into casting in the mid 80’s in Los Angeles and one of our clients requested that the actors auditioning for their project, be required to memorize the script for the audition. My two mentors, Nancy McCook and Catherine White both informed the client that they’d have to budget a talent payment in as Screen Actors Guild rules require that an actor be paid to memorize a script for an audition. (THEY STILL DO!) The client was somewhat surprised to hear that just as we had been to actually hear them request it! But as the years have progressed and more and more people enter the business without the mentorship/apprentice model, we’re seeing more and more casting people (mostly those non-professionally trained) asking for this. Now rather than approach this from a cost perspective (especially in the light of the large amount of non-union work out there) lets look at it from a logistical/efficiency standpoint to see if this is a help or a hindrance to the casting/artistic process to all parties concerned.

Having now presided over close to a third of a million auditions in the past 31 years, I’ve seen a lot of people who were “off book” or memorized on their lines. I’ve also seen a LOT of people who THOUGHT they were off book! The truth about memorization is that most people do it to the point where they can summon up the lines verbatim and not too much more. They practice while doing something else like brushing their teeth, driving to the audition, putting on makeup etc. But when they get into the audition room and it comes time for them to say those memorized lines AND act? That’s a different thing altogether! It’s kind of like juggling with two balls and thinking you’ve got it wired until someone suddenly throws you another one to handle! But there’s another far more damaging truth about memorization that is a situation unto itself and is much different than having to do it AFTER you already have the job. And I seen it  plague far too many auditions. When you memorize for an audition, you place your priority on which words come next and what you want to DO with those words, usually comes in second. But since I’ve NEVER had anyone booked for a role because they memorized better than anyone else, you can see what a misplaced priority this is. I’ve also never been concerned about an actor’s ability to memorize lines AFTER they’re booked and the pressure of the audition is removed from the equation. And it’s never come up as concern with my clients unless there’s  A LOT of dialogue in one stretch which is usually the case on spokesperson copy where teleprompters on-set (and occasionally in the casting session!) are the norm for wise producers. But here are the dynamics for memorization and how it can misplace an actor’s priorities.

Remember when we were kids and we memorized the pledge of allegiance? I have yet to meet anyone who was in a class where some kid raised their hand and asked, “What does the word, “indivisible” mean?” Most of us kids had no idea what the words meant that we were reciting. All we cared about was getting them in the right place and that’s predominantly the case when an actor auditions off-book. When you’ve got the job, you do have to memorize but it’s usually in smaller chunks. And you already have the job so there’s far less pressure on you to juggle the otherwise present balls of nervousness, being flexible with the direction that’s going to be given and basically, just doing it for the first time with a casting director who’s primary job is to scrutinize you even while (hopefully) helping you be the best you can under the circumstances.
So here’s how I recommend handling the situation. Be as off-book as you can. But keep your sides or script handy (in your hand!) so that IF you need to look for a line, you know you can easily find it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an actor who THOUGHT they were off book say after blowing their lines, “Shoot!! I thought I had this memorized!” As soon as I ask them to just “hold” their sides and they don’t even have to look at it, in the vast majority of situations, their read improves vastly even if they don’t even look at it!! I even end up predicting/promising them as much after talking them into holding it and re-taking the scene! In almost every case, they’re able to focus on what they want to do with the lines as an artist because they’re no longer focused on what words are coming next. And that’s what they’re really there to do anyway! And if you HAVE to look at the script, actually pause as if it’s a stream of consciousness pause and in the process of glancing around the room as if you’re “looking” for the idea or thought like humans all seem to do, include the lines in your gaze SECOND TO LAST before you come back to the camera or reader. If will look seamless as if you meant to do it!

I want to say that if you’re dyslexic or have difficulty reading, by all means do whatever you need to do to accommodate your particular situation. But for most people, their read improves drastically when holding the script and I believe your’s will too!

HOWEVER, and having stated all that, I’m aware that actors are finding themselves increasingly being asked to memorize for auditions. And as more and more inexperienced or untrained casting people enter the business, they’re going to be asking for it more and more. (Some are even asking for THEATER Monologues as audition pieces but that’s another blog posting!) A lot of casting is about training but some of it is just common sense like in any profession. So if my job is to find appropriate actors to populate the cast of the productions on which I work, doesn’t it make greater sense to be more concerned with the unique characterization I can only get from that one actor and NOT make the first bar of entry, the memorization I can get from ANY of them once hired?? I can only tell you what I routinely tell actors in my workshop groups as a mantra “ALWAYS ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT! YOU MAY GET IT!” See if your agent can get them to allow you to use a script under the notion that they’ll get a better performance out of you paradoxically because you’ll be thinking about the character rather than the words. If they’re not budging? Then I’m afraid your at the mercy of their “wisdom” of how good an idea this was in figuring out how best to cast the part! Or you can send them this blog and hope the merits of what I’ve written influence them but I don’t guarantee anything as it took me at least a couple of years of seeing the lessons my old bosses taught me about memorization, to convince me they were right all along!! Good Luck!

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About Stephen Salamunovich CSA

Stephen Salamunovich CSA is a 31-year veteran, award-winning casting director who cast somewhere around 4000 projects in Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest before leaving the profession in 2016. You can find his biography in the "Stephen's Bio" tab of the "About" button of this website.

4 Comments

  1. Hi, Very well Put! Thank you. Al

  2. As always, great insights. How is Nancy McCook? God I loved auditioning for her!

  3. Such a great article — I’ve recently been held hostage by an agent who wouldn’t submit my taped audition because I wasn’t off book and held my script. So frustrating. I was told that there were expectations about memorizing if I were to continue with the agency. I never once thought I would have to ask this question in an agent meeting. It’s truly a new phenomenon with e-casting when an agent becomes the first “casting director.” It’s demeaning to the actor and the CD.

  4. Stumbled uon this…Thank Goodness.. at last.. someone with some sence regarding the line learning situation. If we have to learn the lines overnight how is Art always possible? Why do we get these days 4 large scenes overnight off book? Actors do their best work when they know their lines for sure but it’s not always possible if you have too shorter time. Agreed, holding the script means security which you most likely won’t need anyway if it’s there. And if you do a pause and a glance will work well if you bring those lines off the page. So a good casting director can hopefully give us a little leeway.

    Yet from some big CDs out there seem to have the attitude to know it or you never see me again.

    Hang on!? the producers have been working had on the project for ages and ages…the project has probably had countless rewrites and probably taken years. The Director has most likely been touting and pushing the project for months if not years. All so the project is at its best.

    But the Actor can get on board ‘overnight’ or they’re rubbish.

    It’s almost like the Casting Director doesn’t want me to do well. Like they have already got the person they want and the others can’t look too good. They cant really want to only cast actors with photographic memories.. surely some actors take a little time for not just the words to soak in but for the story, the situation, the research on the other characters to soak in as well..

    Some actors like to read the whole script thoroughly, where are they coming from, where are they going to.. sometimes the actor has many fantastic ideas which he needs to troll through with his fishing net and get together the best ones to present them on tape to the Director and the Producers.. and yet they find themselves having to… remember the words. Actually every good actor knows that if you get the role, you finally walk on set and the director will give him new directions, another twist and turn there and then… and at that point he needs to know them so well he can go with the flow and they can be open to anything… but long before that moment at the audition stage the words exactlu aren’t as important as that casting director thinks!

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