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Friday, June 28, 2013

HOW TO LEARN LINES FOR A PLAY: Advice on Flexing Your Mental Muscles

A Banner Made for Me By A Cool Student Named Claire Hamlin
(I am not affiliated with HBO or "Game of Thrones", though I wouldn't Mind)

Greetings ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I will be your host.  This is my little corner of the internet where I talk about all things related to theater as I see it. 

It has been a while since I have posted, largely because of end-of-the-year school activity, as well as being in rehearsals for "The Pajama Game" at Lakewood Theater, where I am playing the delightfully lascivious character Prez.   I apologize for my absence to any or all regular readers of my blog (if, indeed, I have regular readers).

Today I want to talk about the process of learning lines for a play. 

It astounds me how many people think that is the only special trick for being an actor.  I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, "I would love to be in a play, but I couldn't learn all those lines," or, even more often, "How do you learn all those lines?"

I want to stress right from the start that I believe that learning lines is NOT THE HARDEST WORK AND ACTOR DOES.  Don't get me wrong--- I am not trying to downplay the importance of learning lines.  Obviously, it is an essential part of being in a play.  However, I often tell my students that learning lines should be the EASIEST part of being in a play.  The real challenge is taking those lines from the script, building a character with flesh and bones, thought and life.  But... EVERYONE who is in a play should do that, whether they have lines or not. 

Having said all of this, learning lines can, in fact, be a challenge, particularly if you have a great deal of them. 

SO.... how do you memorize lines?

Don't hate me, but I am actually one of the lucky people for the most part where reading over the script time and again just make the lines stick into my memory.  This isn't to suggest that I've never had trouble learning certain lines, but I'm pretty fortunate to have a mind that is geared toward memorization of lines.  Yay, me!

For people who may not have that particular stroke of good fortune, below are some tips I've gathered over the years, and that I sometimes use with my students.  Remember:  you are not just learning YOUR lines, but also need to learn your cues (the lines that come immediately before your lines), so that you know when to come in.

NOTE:  While this isn't officially the first "tip", I do suggest everyone to highlight their lines (if you have a book that is a rental and you can't mark up, photocopy it and then highlight your lines... it helps)

TIP #1:  It is vital that you know the "flow" of the show, and how your character and their lines help to tell the story.  Understanding the script makes the process of learning lines much easier.  Directors can facilitate this process by good discussions after the table read, and by talking about how the story works.  I have even had casts "do the show" without scripts early on in the rehearsal process, using improvisation to tell the story.  This is an excellent way to gauge how well a cast understands a story and how it flows together.  If your director does not do that, and there is not always time for such things, have someone at home or a friend help you with it. 

TIP #2:  Try not to just memorize by rote, but by ACTION.  Every line your character speaks, theoretically, is because your character wants something or wants to get something across.  Think of what these actions are.  What does your character want?  Why is it important enough for them to speak out loud.  If you begin to memorize the "wants" with the lines, then you are actually memorizing concepts, which makes your life easier.  The more you know what your character wants, the more you will be able to help tell your part of the story, even if you don't get it word for word.  (Which, of course, should be the goal to some extent, or as close as possible)

TIP #3:  RECORD:  I know a great deal of people who record their lines.  They start by recording their cues and then their lines, and they listen to it over and over.  Then, they record their cues, and leave a space for their lines, and then listen and try to fill in the spaces.  This is basically "cueing" yourself.

TIP #4:  Have someone "cue" you.  A friend or loved one, even if they can't act.  Have them read your cues, and you give them your line.  Make them be strict with you.  It's important that this person like you, because, most likely, you will get frustrated when you keep messing up, and might get irritable.

TIP #5:  DIRECTORS:  Here is something I've done on a few occasions when I have had casts that are worried about lines or having trouble learning them.  This is hard work.  It is like tip number 4, but it is sort of the atomic bomb of "cueing".  Get some volunteers, one for each member of your cast, to work with each member of your cast.  Take the book away from your cast members, give them to their new "partners".  These volunteers are going to cue your cast in their own little space.  The volunteers will be told to make sure the actors have to have their lines WORD FOR WORD.  If they miss a word, they have to go back to the beginning of the line.  Even if the volunteer has to cue the actors and have them repeat over and over again, this is okay.  I have found this to be an AMAZING and EFFECTIVE method, although it is also difficult for the actors and can be frustrating.  When done, the actors have an understanding of their lines and a scene that they did not have before, and will be much closer in their deliveries.  But it does fry the brain... don't do this for any longer than an hour and a half to 2 hours.  Special note:  when I had to step into a role with less than two days notice, this is how I was able to learn the lines--- I started by basically repeating the lines sentence by sentence, word by word.  Repeat over and over again. 
It works. 

TIP #5:  If you are memorizing a monologue, again, make sure you know the flow of the speech.  I have found when I have difficulty learning a monologue, typing it out over and over again can be helpful.  I know that sounds weird, but doing something physical can help nail things down in your brain.

TIP #6:  Another monologue tip--- do your lines in front of a mirror. 

TIP #7:  Line tag--- another fun thing for directors to do.  If you're doing a line-through, have the cast play a game of tag based on cues.  Whoever speaks next is who you tag when you give your line.  They tag who they're speaking to when they give their line, and so on and so on.  This gives a good understanding of the back and forth, as well as looking and listening.

And finally...

TIP #8:  Read the script over and over.  And over.  And over.  And over.  (You get the idea)

Okay, so these tips are obviously not the only methods of learning lines, but I have seen them do wonders.  Repetition is key for all of the tips. 

So, break a leg, learn those lines, get them under control as soon as possible, and work on the serious stuff like developing your character and looking and listening.  Trust me, that's for more important and taxing than the chore of learning what words you're saying.

Until next time, remember:  theater is not just a craft or art form, but is also a sport.