Playwright and performer Rinne Groff was trained at Yale University and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where she currently teaches. A founding member of Elevator Repair Service Theater Company, she has been a part of the writing, staging, and performing of their shows since the company’s inception in 1991. Groff has received a Guggenheim Award and Whiting Award for Drama, as well as a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. She is the writer of multiple plays, including Compulsion, which starred Mandy Patinkin and opened Off-Broadway in 2011 after a run at both Yale Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Brent: When you write a play, how much do you think about how the actors will approach memorizing the text?
Rinne: I don’t think about it too much. In general, I find actors to be amazingly adept at memorizing text. It’s one if the muscles which actors, especially theater actors, have developed mightily. I recently wrote a play with a ten-minute monologue at the center. I worried about the actor’s ability to learn it. To my amazement, not only did she learn it, but during previews, when we were still making changes to the script, she could take in a re-written line in the afternoon and deliver it on stage flawlessly in performance that night. That’s an actor with a gift for text.
Brent: That is indeed a talent! Who is she?
Rinne: Her name is Bree Elrod.
Brent: Thank you. I will look her up [interview HERE]. Do you think your structure, word choice, blocking, etc. facilitate the learning of the text by the actors?
Rinne: I don’t structure text to make it easier to learn, but when an actor struggles with a section or repeatedly gets something wrong in rehearsal, I make an effort to explain my word choice and what I believe to be the intention behind a line. Generally, once the actor has that understanding (why this word and not that word, or how this topic leads to that topic in the character’s mind), the mistake corrects itself.
Brent: Interesting. Have you ever met a writer who intentionally put memory aids into the text?
Rinne: When working on a musical with a quite experienced lyric writer, he shared with me that when there is a string of words that could potentially go in any order. Example: in the first chorus they sing, “I love you deeply,” the second time, “I love you madly,” and the third, “I love you truly.” Then he puts those differentiated words in alphabetical order so that it aids in the memorization. Thus, deeply, madly, truly.
Brent: I get the impression that you would take a different tack.
Rinne: I think I’d approach the same problem more in terms of the build: Which is the least intense? Probably “deeply." Then we could discuss if “madly” or “truly” were the most extreme expression of love from this character because with lists in drama, one always wants them to build in intensity. So again, I suppose I’m confessing to the internal logic system of memorization—finding the key that unlocks the reason for a particular structure or word choice—rather than the strictly mnemonic.
Brent: Have you ever made changes to a script because it was too difficult to memorize?
Rinne: Not exactly. But if an actor struggles mightily with a section of text, it’s either because there’s something he doesn’t understand, or there’s something I don’t understand. If an actor can point out to me what it is that I’m missing that makes it difficult for him to keep ahold of the text (and if I think he’s correct in his assessment), I will joyously change the line to one that makes more sense and thus is easier to remember.
Brent: What methods do you use to memorize scripts or other material for public presentation?
Rinne: As I suppose you can gather from my previous answers, understanding is key: why this word, why this structure, why this apparent veer to a new topic. If I understand the psychology, then the progression of words follows naturally. If I am struggling with a line, I try to come up with an ironclad reason why it has to be the way it is and no other way, and that reasoning will flash before my eyes, so to speak, as I get to the particular tricky section.
Brent: How do you prepare physically for a presentation?
Rinne: The more pedestrian answer is I read it out loud, again, and again, and again. I look at it, put down the book, say it out loud, check that I got it right, and repeat. In short, I practice. Like most things, learning a speech requires practice.
Brent: No question. I read a terrific quote recently in a book about Stanislavski’s method acting approach. To paraphrase, a patient doesn’t get better by reading the prescription; he must take the medicine. I remind students in my workshop that memorization is akin to learning a foreign language: you have to actively write, read, speak, and hear the text in order to internalize it. Last question: any plans for you to take the stage again?
Rinne: I’m performing on stage for the first time in 14 years come next fall, and I’ve been in some workshops leading up to it. I was never the best memorizer, one of those people to whom it seems to come effortlessly, but I find that now, being out of practice, I definitely have to work a little harder to get the words into my head. But they do come!
Brent: You’re taking it on the right way. It will be like getting back on a bicycle.
Rinne: Thank you. I hope these answers are useful.
Brent: They absolutely are! You have been very generous with your time and beautifully articulated insights. Thank you!