Some improv students worry that their memories are not good enough to practise longform. They are concerned that character names, beats and all manner of details will fall out of their heads. The thing is, I also have a shitty memory. Yesterday I spent about four hours trying to remember the type of wool my jumper was made from. So how can this idiot remember character names, beats, games, where things are on stage and make callbacks? People that compete in memory competitions don’t necessarily have a greater capacity for remembering everyday things, they have just learned a lot of techniques in order to function in that context.
Names is the first and hardest memory trial in improv. I kind of buried my head in the sand about that for many years but now I enjoy the challenge.
Here are a few ways that I’ve found useful:
Card-counters and memory nerds use visuals to remember specifics (as above). If you have a list of ten things to remember, putting them in order in your brain seems like something you just have to learn by repetition, but you can create a Mind Palace like Sherlock Holmes and lay them on a trail around your home. Visual memory serves most of us better than just remembering a list of words. That works for beats in a Harold. My students did a Harold show last night. The first beat was broadly about ‘driving’, so I pictured a car, the second was about languages so I pictured someone saying ‘baguette’ in a speech bubble, the third was about ‘smugness’ so I pictured a smug facial expression. I can easily remember the beats today. The games, character names, and settings all come along with those one-word beat titles.
I know; it all sounds very heady and you also want to watch and enjoy the improv. The great thing is that if you put the work in, this stuff gets easier. Robots are pretty rubbish at catching a ball because of the millions of calculations they have to do to judge where it should be caught. Humans – for the most part – find it pretty easy and we don’t need to think hard about it. The memory calculations that sit right up there at the front of your consciousness will become second nature after time.
Use your own familiar living and working spaces as a template for improvised settings. If you’re in a bedroom on stage and you need to define a sock drawer, put it exactly where it would be in your bedroom. That’s less to think about. Equally, if you’re in a spaceship, there’s no reason you shouldn’t put stuff in the same relative places as you would at home. Instead of putting a cup in the right hand cupboard, stick your astronaut water bag and straw to the wall in the same place.
Merely deciding that you will retain more information is a great way to get better. Much like active listening, active remembering means that you are consciously applying yourself to taking in more information.
Start small and add more and more information, just like beginning with short runs in order to build up to a marathon.
In case you’re wondering... my jumper was made of Marino.
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Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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