On Learning Lines

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Learning lines for a play is a far greater challenge for most actors than most realize. While some seem to learn their lines nearly effortlessly, for most of us it is a very significant piece of taking on a role on stage. Since I am a person who loves to act, but like most people I know, also a person for whom learning lines is not “as easy as falling off a log” but more like trying to stay on a log as it goes down the rapids, I have given much thought to the process of learning lines, so I speak of ways to go about learning lines from the perspective of someone who knows just how hard it can be. This is the third in a series I’ve written on this topic, highlighting methods I’ve found most useful.

One’s lines define one’s character, a fact that has not significantly changed in the evolution of theater. The author’s words on the page are what we say. If you don’t know your lines, you don’t know your part. No acting, at least no effective acting, can take place until the actor confidently knows what must be. If an actor struggles to remember lines, the audience is immediately thrown out of whatever role the character is supposed to portraying on stage and into the quite different and unappealing drama of wondering just how amateurish the performance is going to be. So not one of us can fail to take the task to heart.

Before I begin, a brief aside about learning lines while leading complicated lives. The complexities of life, including highly emotional situations, pressures, unexpected emergencies, and so on, must be respected, of course, but must not become excuses for learning one’s lines. If a person accepts a part in a play, then that person has agreed to figure out how to learn their lines in a timely fashion. That does not mean learning them by opening night. The earlier in the process one can work off-book, the better. The truth is that nearly everyone leads a complex life. Almost everyone has things come up they weren’t expecting that take their time and attention, that absorb their emotional energies. This just means that actors most make maximal use of their time to ensure they aren’t constantly struggling to remember their lines, but know them well enough to focus on the acting itself. This must begin as early in the rehearsal process as possible, lest one be an unreliable partner in the highly cooperative project that is performing as an ensemble.

I start with the two things: that I have found most useful myself:
1) Put cues on one side of 3 x 5 cards and one’s lines on the other side. Pretty self-explanatory. Remember to number cards sequentially so it’s easy to put them back in order after, for example, dropping them. Also very helpful to get cards that are blank and the other lined so which is the cue and which the line doesn’t get confused. Transferring the lines from the script to the cards is itself a step in learning.

Don’t put just the last couple words of the cue on the front of the card, but enough of the other person’s lines so that you hear it as your cue even if the line gets garbled somewhat by the other actor.

One cue / line on each card so that you don’t see your own lines along with the cues.

Longer speeches can be copied or printed out and then cut and pasted so you don’t have to take all day writing them out. Monologues will need to be broken into multiple cards, of course, but the cards can still be useful. One method is to put the last word of the first part of a speech as the cue for the next and repeat this process through the whole monologue.

There are many variations you may find useful, but most actors begin at the beginning a work their way through the play. The key thing is repetition, repetition, repetition. You show yourself the cue and you say your line. Whenever possible, you show yourself the cue line and say your own line aloud. Repeat until you could practically play the entire sequence of flipping cards in your mind, barely glancing at each cue card. Sometimes I’ll try to review an entire scene in my head without the cards, and see how far I can go before I get stuck.

2) Make audio recordings. (Especially useful if you either drive around a lot or sit at a computer a lot. Many people have either a computer or pad to record and a phone to play it back on, so that’s the method I’m suggesting here. There’s free software called Audacity that I find works great without being annoying by advertising things.) Here are the steps in the process. It may take some time getting the hang of it the first couple times, but it’s really very simple:

Record both your own lines and other actors lines for each scene you’re in and save.
Export that file to an .mp3 file or other than can be easily sucked into an app like iTunes.
Create a second track, initially empty track
Select each hunk of one’s own lines and Copy (NOT Cut) & Paste onto the empty track and then Silence (NOT Cut; the idea is to keep the space intact but the cue/lines separated)
Mute the track that has your own lines (NOT Delete, just Mute)
Export to a different file name like CUES ONLY Scene 1 and suck into iTunes or similar
Create a playlist of the two new files and suck them into your phone

Do this for each scene that you’re in. Be sure to name the files in a way that helps you keep track of which is what.

An aside about going blank while on stage
More tips to come, but a moment to talk about what happens when you or another actor goes blank. There are very few actors who have not had this experience of having no idea what they’re supposed to say next. I certainly have.

Nearly all actors literally lose their minds as soon as they stand on a stage in front of an audience. This is what makes learning lines such a defiance against nature. The engram, the memory unit, must hold up against the gale of all that was once solid disappear.

If it’s a scene partner who goes blank, this is one of those times when the more strongly you know all the lines of the play, not just your own, the more you are likely able to help. When a stage manager is on book for a rehearsal, let the actor call for a line and stay out of the way. But in off-book rehearsals and during performances, actors who are confident of both their own the other actor’s lines can help an actor who’s gone blank. This is done not by feeding a line, but by providing a useful cue. Sometimes this may be as simple as turning the other character’s line into a question. “I am looking for the road to Gomorra” becomes “Are you looking for the road to Gomorra?” The trick is not jumping in either too soon or too late. This a matter of the sensitivity of the actors on stage to each other.

If you’re the actor who’s gone blank? My first advice is simply to breath and wait. Quietly maintain one’s stance and maintain one’s character. Ninety percent of the time, the next line will come to you. The other ten percent, you’ll deeply appreciate it when your scene partner comes to your aid. If you’re alone on stage, there are moments when you simply have to resort to making up some words your character might say in this situation, perhaps repeating a few words to get yourself back on track. If you’ve done your homework and worked on those lines, what you’re supposed to say will come back to you.Audiences are generally far more forgiving than most actors give them credit for! Someone, even if it’s not you, will figure out how to move forward. What will have felt like a pause of several millennia will have been experienced by the audience as either a pregnant pause or a momentary blip. The show does go on.

Tips to learning lines
Tip #1. Learn lines as full phrases
For more than a short interjection with no interior punctuation, I find it best to think break it down into phrases, starting with the shortest phrase and building up, phrase by phrase, to the complete line or set of lines. The natural sequence is to start at the beginning and work one’s way through the speech, but the critical thing is to connect the phrases.

On way to connect phrases in one’s mind is a method commonly used in learning songs such as jazz tunes. You learn a first phrase. Only when that is solid to you go on to the next. Then you learn the next phrase. Now you put the two together. Then the third, then the second and third, then all three together. If it’s a longer speech, now add the fourth, then work on the third and fourth; then second, third and fourth and finally all together. The point is to only gradually put the pieces together, but always keeping phrases in manageable units until the whole is built up. What often happens if you always start from the beginning and try to go to the end, you inevitably hit a spot where the next line either doesn’t come to you or you’re skipping over a line, often without realizing it. Building up the sequence of phrases gradually, helps the flow of the lines to stick in you mind.

Don’t get stuck in a specific way of saying the line by varying how you say the phrase as you learn it.

Tip #2. Have a clear, simple understanding of what you’re saying in your own words
After work on learning a set of phrases this way, I think it can be useful to think of what the whole speech says in other words. What is the point of this speech? What is it’s mood? Why is your character saying it? If you know in your own words what you’re saying, you’re very likely to know what to say if the exact wording of the line doesn’t come back to you in performing it.

An aside on paraphrasing: Paraphrasing and learning phrasing of one’s lines need to be thought as two important skills of the actor, but skills that work best when kept a bit apart, i.e. not fuzzily shifting from one to the other. Paraphrasing is not, per se, a bad thing. It may be an absolutely necessary thing in an emergency: One’s scene partner or oneself forget’s a cue line or goes blank. Thank god we can they say something that our character might indeed say so that have a moment to get back on track without unnerving our audience.

Paraphrasing is also crucial to understanding the flow of a scene or a moment in a scene. Yet
the words, the precise words, including punctuation, are what the author is giving the actor to say. Knowing what they are to the point that one can say them nearly without thinking is the primary task, the starting point, the very basis for what could then be put in other words, In the end, the lines, the words inscribed on the page, are the root. Paraphrasing can grow from this root, but cannot and should not supplant it.

Tip #3. Find the spots that trip you up
When saying the full speech, note the moments where you hesitate. You’ll always find there are some combinations of words that flow easily off the tongue and others, sometimes not obviously more complicated, that just don’t come naturally to you. The same is true of the sequences of phrases. Almost all actors find some moments in speeches more troublesome, more prone to error, more easy to skip over unintentionally, than others. As one learns, one pays particular heed to the word sequences, whether within phrases or between phrases, that give one the most trouble.

While focusing on the trouble sports, be confident but not overconfident about the phrases or sets of phrases that always seem easier to memorize. Be sure their flow continues unimpeded by giving them due respect in running through one’s lines prior to performance. I rarely do any performance without running through my entire set of lines prior to each show. This obviously isn’t always possible, but it’s well worth trying to do. Sometimes a matinee on the day following a show can trick you. It feels like you must know the lines since you just did them the night before. The truth is that it’s still worth running through one’s set of cards or audio cuing each time if at all possible. The goal is to always be confidence without hubris.

Tip #4. Don’t belabor an error

By and large, unless its absolutely critical to the audience understanding the play, move on if something has gone wrong. Even in rehearsal, don’t apologize, just do what’s necessary to move forward. Unceremoniously call for a line if you’re in the phase of rehearsal where that’s permitted and supported, figure your way out of a jam if that option is no longer possible because you’re close to opening or in an actual show.

Tip #5: Over-learning IS necessary.
It is one thing to know one’s lines as perfectly as one can know them, another to see if they hold up on the field of battle, that is, spoken aloud at full voice before an audience. And it is yet another not to prepare, to enter that area without having given one’s all to achieve comfort with one’s lines. Watching others, it does seem as if it is done like magic, presto, I know my lines and speak them clearly and solidly. Let a alone that magic point: I’m not concerned about my lines, they’re in my head, I can rely on them.
I’ve even known actors who think they will get stale or rigid if they “know their lines too well.” Everyone’s different so I can definitely accept that there are some who do better when they don’t ever get their lines down verbatim. I have a good friend with whom I did a classic scene who worked that way. He never gave me the same cues in the same order. It certainly kept me on my toes and certainly meant the scene was “fresh” every time we did it, but I really wouldn’t advise it. There are many other ways to ensure you’re interacting directly with your fellow actor besides being loose about the lines. Since it’s always possible that you’ll be acting opposite someone who is uncertain about lines and cues, it’s even more important to learn the lines extremely well.
Over-learning is necessary because being on stage is such an intensely different experience from almost any other in life. When else does find oneself in a high pitch of emotion, with a (hopefully) large group of strangers watching you, listening to your every word, and where what you say has been scripted in advance? Your mind has to keep working even when you’ve completely lost your mind, when the anxiety or nausea or sheer excitement or whatever it is you feel when you’re on stage hits you. The words have to come without you will. They have to be there when something extraneous has distracted your, or your fellow actors are throwing you off.
Over-learning works. In an ideal world, the cue from the other actor should instantly catalyze the words you need to say. It isn’t sufficient to know your lines when you’re sitting in your armchair at home.

Tip #6: Active memorization is far more effective than passive memorization. Reading and re-reading a script is quite useful, definitely, but it is still passive memorization. The lines are seeping in by osmosis. Psychologists determined long ago (back when I took psychology they knew this and mammals had yet to emerge as the dominant species!) that forcing yourself to remember with a minimum of input is far more effective than simply re-reading. I put every line on cards with the cue on one side and my own on the other and go through the set repeatedly. I will also see how far I can get remembering both what I say and what the other actor or actors say.

Tip #7: Time, time, time. Everyone learns at their own speed. I recently memorize a section of a play that took me roughly forty hours to get down with even reasonable reliability. My scene partner memorized her equally long section in a couple of hours. I had another scene partner in a long play who didn’t know his lines one night and came back the next knowing them perfectly. You have to base your time allocation based on your own ability, not what an “ideal” memorizer would do. If you don’t have the time to learn the lines required for a part, don’t take the part. It simply isn’t fair to the other actors, the director, or yourself to put yourself in a position to where you don’t have sufficient time to learn your part given your own actual capacity to retain lines. If you do take a part, allocate the time. Period.

Tip #8 Understand the arc of your lines and of the scene in which they take place.

For more tips and commentaries on doing local theater productions, check out these articles:

The Out of mind experience and

More on specific techniques and challenges of learning lines.

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