Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, James Miller moved to New York about six years ago to pursue acting. Since then, he has studied at Stella Adler Studio, T. Schreiber Studio, and The Upright Citizens Brigade. His work has consisted of Off-Off-Off-Broadway theater and student film productions. Remarkably self-aware and brimming with practical ideas from his studies, James is a very entertaining and instructive storyteller.
Brent: What was the most challenging role you ever had to prepare for in terms of memorization?
James: Probably the most difficult so far was a production of Romeo and Juliet in which I played Friar Laurence. It was my first production of Shakespeare, and the friar has the third most lines in the play, even if we were pretty judicious in our cuts to the script. So, having a huge amount of lines, coupled with using the verse form for the first time, made for a pretty big challenge.
Brent: Sounds like a very tall order! How did you tackle the role?
James: Thankfully, I had recently read through Rob Lowe’s second autobiography, Love Life. On page 167 of the hardcover edition, he details his process for memorizing lines, which he picked up from Allison Janney when they worked together on “The West Wing,” and which she had picked up from someone who studied at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Brent: You’ve got me intrigued. Keep going!
James: It goes like this: Take a line you need to memorize, and write out just the first letter of each word. Include punctuation. For example, the line, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad," would look like this: “I s, I k n w I a s s." This gives you a cue (the letter), while making your brain fill in the rest; you are prompted, but you also have to struggle. (I also keep the format of the text the same, i.e., either prose or verse.) After going through the process of writing out the letters of my lines, I then used the coded version for memorization, only using the script as a reference if I couldn't recall precisely what the letter stood for.
Brent: Smart approach. Preserving the punctuation and capitalization, as well as the format, provides some useful hints. Do you also use this technique for scene work?
James: While that technique works perfectly well on its own for monologues, for scene work I coupled Lowe’s strategy with a technique I picked up at T. Schreiber Studio in New York. For any scenes, I made a recording of just the other person's lines, without emotion or performance, with three-second pauses in between. With this recording, I could hear the other person's lines, pause the recording to deliver my lines (also without emotion or performance, since this is purely technical and I didn’t want to get stuck in interpretations), and then continued playing the recording for the next lines, pausing it when I need to deliver my lines, and so on.
Brent: Beautiful! A lot of actors tell me they know everyone else’s lines as well as their own through osmosis, so it’s wise to learn yours not just in isolation but also in the context of the show. How do you pace yourself to avoid overloading your brain?
James: On top of that, I used a studying technique that helped me through college, where I memorize lines for 20 minutes, then rest for 10 minutes, before memorizing for another 20 minutes, and so on. I also tried to study right when I got up or right before going to bed, since I hear that is also helpful for memorization.
Brent: No question that memorization can be as fatiguing as physical activity. Timing it with periods when your brain is the most alert, impressionable, or both is helpful. Anything else?
James: I also broke up the script into chunks that I was memorizing, focusing on one long monologue or scene a day, so as not to get too overwhelmed by the task before me.
Brent: What about commitment to your character? How does that help you learn your lines?
James: Committing to character helps me memorize lines because if I understand my character, and more importantly, what my character is trying to achieve, I can parse out exactly what the character means with the lines he says, how they should be helping him to reach his objective, and, therefore, in what order the thoughts and lines should happen.
Brent: Right, it’s best to think about a monologue as a gradual progression of ideas, not as a monolithic mass.
James: Almost no characters have giant monologues memorized and prepared to deliver to the other characters; each line is supposed to build on the one before it, and flow organically together, like dominoes falling one after the other. So, if I understand the point my character’s trying to make, I can start to see the thought process my character is going through, which makes it easier to remember that my character is making a specific point with one line (or several), and then has a new point he builds on after that, and so on.
Brent: Any examples from recent performances?
James: A recent example was a one-act I was in last month. I was playing a NASA commander briefing a roomful of potential candidates for a mission to Mars. I had an enormous, ten-line run-on sentence to deliver during this introductory speech. It helped me to memorize it by recognizing that the character is walking them through the entire mission process, undercutting the likelihood of success at each stage, before finally making it clear that ultimately wouldn’t succeed because of the lack of commitment by the astronauts in the room.
Brent: So the sequence of ideas made sense in your head.
James: On the page it seems like a railing, unending sentence, but by figuring out why my character was saying what he was saying, it helped me recognize why he was constructing his sentences in a particular way, which helped to cement the lines in my head.
Brent: No question. The “why” almost always informs the “what” and puts you on a path of knowing where the thread of the monologue is going. Despite that preparation, has your mind ever gone blank on stage? How did you recover?
James: I’m fairly certain every actor has gone up on his lines at some point or another; I’m no exception. I can think of two specific examples of me going up on my lines. The first was during a high school production of Into the Woods. I was playing the Baker, and it was the beginning of the second act. My character goes to Cinderella to warn them about the giant attacking the kingdom, and somehow I just completely forgot what my next lines were. I ended up just blurting out “Giant!” right into Cinderella’s face, before stumbling over myself to get us back on track, which we eventually did.
Brent: Oh my! Glad you recovered from it. What was your take-away from this experience?
James: The important lesson I took away—aside from focusing and being off-book as best as possible—is to grasp for the idea of what I’m supposed to be talking about, which will hopefully guide me back to the precise words written by the playwright.
Brent: Have you ever been distracted by the audience to the point that it interfered with your performance?
James: That happened with the one-act I recently mentioned. In that large monologue I just discussed memorizing, I went up on my lines right as I started the huge run-on sentence. It was the first time we’d performed the show in front of an audience, and I think their willingness to laugh at the humor sort of threw me off, to where I completely blanked on where I was in the script.
Brent: How did you handle it?
James: I took half a beat before launching into the speech, once again trying to grasp onto the idea of what I was talking about, and doing the best I could to land on the exact words. It meant I changed one important word—“rocket”—with another serviceable, if entirely inaccurate word—“airship”—to get moving with the line I had blanked on.
Brent: The important thing is that you got back on track. Well, thanks so much for your time, James. You’ve been very generous to share your stories and techniques with us. I wish you a long, successful career on stage.
James: Thank you for involving me in your work!
Learn more about James on his website.