On Learning Lines: Techniques for Line Memorization

While the first of this pair of articles explores the hazards and terrors associated with learning ones lines and stresses the need for over-learning one’s lines as early in the process of preparing to perform, this article digs a few memorization approaches that actors have found useful. No method can dispel actors’ (and their directors!) anxiety about lines, making use of an arsenal of memorization techniques applied dutifully and repetitively makes it much more possible to focus on characterization and spontaneous interaction rather than worrying about one’s lines in performance.

This article proposes using multiple methods rather than relying solely on a single approach. There’s no reason not to use all the tricks of the trade. Moreover, using multiple methods may be helpful in keeping out of a rut that will lead to canned ways of saying one’s lines that spoils the sense immediate reality that is essential to effective acting. Strong actors want to know their lines so fully that they no longer consider them, but are responding spontaneously to what other actors are saying and doing. Memorization that locks an actor in to a particular line reading is nearly as deadly as not learning one’s lines accurately. Pure rote memorization also can fail in a time of crisis, as when another actor goes blank or gives the wrong cue. Over-learning is definitely good, but it must be over-learning in a way that allows flexibility, a solid sense of the meaning the actor is trying to get across, and an increased ability to listen to one’s fellow actors and to respond spontaneously to them. As it is often put, the goal is for the actor to be fully present in the moment so that the audience can be fully immersed in the performance.

With all due humility about how difficult the process of learning lines can be and the greatest respect (and envy!) for those whose memory allows them to absorb and retain their lines without difficulty, here are a few methods that actors have found most effective. Obviously every actor finds what works best.

  1. Many actors simply read and re-read the script, holding off any active memorization tasks. Nearly everyone starts with this, naturally, but some actors hold onto their scripts as long into the rehearsal process as possible, gradually moving from simply reading the script to gradually glancing less and less at it until forced to work without it. For actors with a strong visual memory, the vision of the lines on the page helps to embed them more solidly. Most actors, however, find they need more than this to solidly internalize the script.
  2. Running lines with a partner. The ideal is, of course, to learn lines together with one’s own actual scene partners outside the context of rehearsal. Next best is running them with a friend or partner.  Though certainly one of the most effective methods, there’s usually a limit to how much a person who isn’t in a play can take of running lines with a person who is. Sainthood points are usually not sufficient to endure the seemingly endless repetition required to learn a part.

Actors sometimes forget that lines can be run without being in the same room with the person they’re running lines with. Online video chats or even simply running lines over the telephone can be extremely helpful.

3.  Cards. A set of 3 x 5 cards with the cue lines on one side and one’s own on the other can be invaluable. While one may resort to xeroxing long speeches and scotch-taping them, the process of writing the lines on the card is a yet another modality to add into the memorization process. It’s useful to keep this practice up even during the run of a show. Only on the rarest occasion will I do a performance without having gone through my entire set of cards at least once on the day of a performance.

I suggest 3 x 5’s rather than larger cards so that each card follows a strict single cue (which may be an action or sound rather than an actual “line”). I’ve found cards that are blank on one side and lined on the other are helpful in keeping the cards in order.

3. Over-memorizing three to five anchor speeches. I find it very useful to over-learn several speeches and their cues, so that, regardless of almost anything, I know these lines perfectly and could recite them at any time.  It’s useful to pick five or six cue/line combinations spaced throughout the play to know as well as one used to know the pledge of allegiance or Gettysburg Address as a kid. I like to pick some that are just a sentence or two and others that are among the longer speeches my character ever speaks.

4.  Double and quadruple effort is needed for lines of extreme emotion, particularly extreme anger. We all tend to sputter a bit when we’re over-the-top with anger, but we also tend to speak more quickly and fluidly when emotion is pouring out. Stumbling on one’s lines at such points can undercut the intensity of a critical scene. We’re almost all method actors when it comes to depicting rage, so it’s critical to over-learn lest lines learned in the relative calm of memorization fall apart at the height of drama.

5. Learn lines as slowly as possible consistent with getting all the lines memorized. I’ve heard of actors who focus on five sentences at a time, reading them aloud multiple times before trying to memorize and completely memorizing them before going on to the next set of five lines. I’ve rarely had the luxury to learn my lines this deliberately, but I could certainly see the value of this approach.

6. Never underestimate how long it will take to learn your lines. Don’t be fooled by having only a few lines. This can sometimes be as difficult as memorizing a great many lines, in part because one has been inert for so long before springing into the action. When you have many lines, you may have time to recover from an error.  But if you’re the one who bursts into the room to tell them that so-and-so has been shot, you don’t want to stumble over so-and-so’s name! It is also painfully easy to miss a cue if you’ve been waiting for it for many minutes. The whole play can sound like yada-yada-yada until your line’s coming up. Suddenly you realize that the most recent yada-yada-yada was actually your cue and you’re pitifully late with your response.

7. Realize that the actual performance will feel like it’s going about twice as fast as any rehearsal. Once the adrenaline gets flowing, but it’s hard to be prepared for just how fast cues and lines will fly.  So, when practicing lines, also practice pacing. Vary pacing in running lines so that you are able to slow down or speed up depending on what’s called for and avoid getting a fixed rhythm stuck in your mind.

8. Change how you say your lines every time you practice them. Try saying them completely flat, as though reciting the dictionary. Try saying them over-dramatized. Try saying them with an accent. Whatever you do, don’t get fixed on a particular line-reading. A way of saying a line that worked brilliantly once will fall flat when repeated in a second performance.  (I’ve often noticed how a line that draws a strong laugh initially gets a weaker and weaker reaction as performances continue, likely because the spontaneity of the first reading has been replaced by the actor’s conviction that “here’s a funny line the audience should laugh at.”

9. Another incredibly useful approach is audiotaping cues and lines. If it’s possible, it can be quite valuable to take the time for the ensemble to read all the lines and record them. This has the great advantage of hearing cues in the voice of one’s fellow actors. A down side is that one hears one’s own lines and must stop the recording after each cue. Psychological studies have long demonstrated that active recall is far more effective in memorization than simple repetition. There is also the potential risk of getting caught in saying one’s lines with the particular cadence as when initially recorded, thus increasing the possibility to be stuck in a particular way of saying one’s lines.

It’s useful to start with a tape that includes one’s own lines and then move on to a tape that leaves blank space where one’s lines would be. I’ve found it’s useful to go back and forth between these two versions of a scene, so that one learns the precise wording and, when using the version without one’s lines, one is forced to recall the lines without hearing them.

if one is not too technophobic, there are a couple apps that are particularly helpful in this process. The first is called Audacity and is a free download for both Mac and PC. This software, once you get the hang of it, allows you to create a track that silences one’s own lines but leave intact the appropriate time gap. The finished products (with and without one’s own lines) can then be exported to an MP3 files that can be easily sucked into iTunes or the like. If one drives around a lot in uncomplicated traffic, this can be a great way to learn lines.

There are also several apps that will allow you to speed up or slow down sections of scenes (without changing the pitch of the sound), to loop sections, and otherwise manipulate them so that you can focus on particular problem areas over and over again. (The one I use is called the “Amazing Slowdowner.” It isn’t free, but I find it’s extremely helpful. I’m sure there are other software apps that provide similar functionality.

10.   And yes, mnemonics. Sometimes you need to give yourself an association that helps you remember your line. Every actors find some cue/line combinations hard to remember for no apparent reason. The key is to find an association that works for you specifically. The danger is that the other actor will paraphrase the line in a way that doesn’t trigger your association, so it’s safer if it isn’t a specific single word that kicks off your line in your own mind, but the general content of what the other character says.  With long speeches, a series of internal associational links can be built.

11. Find your weak spots. Everyone has them: spots that, for no apparent reason, you go blank or skip. At first it can feel like it’s the whole play that’s your weak spot, but after many repetitions, most actors find that their are a few specific spots that just kill them. If you use cards, I suggest putting a star on the one’s that you get stuck at and do extra sessions devoted solely to those spots. It’s true that once you conquer one tough spot another may pop up unexpectedly. That’s show biz. That’s why we all count on the other actors to have learned their cues and lines and the play’s sequences of events well enough to help us out when we stumble.

12. Some say they can’t really begin to develop their character until they know their lines. For me, learning my lines and becoming my character go hand-in-hand. In a sense, one’s character is one’s lines. Apart from explicit stage directions, the playwright’s only means of communicating is the words the actors speak. So what a character says in response to what’s going on is the only thing that character could possibly say. Once I know what it is my character saying, I know who that character is. And vice versa: Once I know what my character and what my character is reacting to, well, that’s my line.

The bottom line, of course, is repetition. Learning one’s lines is hardly the fun part of doing a show, but there’s no show without it. Committing to doing a part means committing to be as close to letter perfect as much before the show opens as possible. The more comfortable everyone is with their lines, the less stiff, stumbling, fumbling, screwing up, going blank, calling for lines during off-book rehearsals, apologies, etc. and so the more free and fun and satisfying the show is going to be for both the ensemble and the audience. The audience should be as totally unconcerned with your remembering your lines as is humanly possible. This can only happen if you know them so well that they come out without your worrying about them, hesitating over them, stumbling, or garbling them. Only in rare circumstances (a marriage proposal? Asking one’s boss for a raise?) do real people “rehearse” what they’re going to say to each other. They don’t sit there thinking “what will I say next” when the other person is talking. They just react or go off on another track altogether. The irony of acting is that the more energy the actor spends on the unnatural act of memorization, the more natural everything will seem when it’s said on stage.

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