As an improviser, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a scene and calling your scene partner by the wrong character name. Or saying that you are in Paris when it was already established you are in California. Ouch.
To be a good improviser, you need to not only listen to the last thing that was said, but you also need to improve your memory to keep all of the details of every scene straight — something I’ve struggled with a lot over the years.
In this week’s blog, I asked Katy Schutte — an improviser from England and author of the new book, “The Improvisers Way: A Longform Workbook” — to share her thoughts on how you can sharpen your memory so you can be an even better improviser.
Some improv students that worry their memories are not good enough to practice 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 sweater was made from. So how can I remember character names, beats, games, where things are on stage and make callbacks?
People who 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. Here are a few of my tips for how to improve your memory so you can have an awesome show on stage.
Remembering names during a scene 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:
- Do you know someone with that name? Great – picture them in this role.
- Give people interesting names! For me, Eon Darkness is easier to remember than Jane Smithers.
- Repeat names at least three times. Memory is created by recall, so the more you say a name, the more likely you are to remember it.
- Use pictures to help you remember; Daisy is also a flower, picture that flower
Card-counters and memory nerds use visuals to remember specifics (as above). If you have a list of ten things to remember, try visualizing something that you associate with each item. This can work great 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.
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. Here are a few ways to start:
- Remember your own character’s name.
- Remember one more person’s character name.
- Build up until you can remember all of the names in a show.
- Start titling beats and recalling them both for your shows and shows you watch.
- Practice placing lists of ten things around your home (like vegetables or sports) and see how easy they are to recall.
…and so on until you can play and retain all this without having to think about it too much.
In case you’re wondering… my sweater was made of Marino.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Katy Schutte’s improv book, shows, classes and podcasts here: katyschutte.co.uk