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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Learning Your Lines for a Play: A Second Look at Tips for Memorization

Note:  I am in no way affiliated with HBO or "Game of Thrones", other than thinking its cool
Thank you for stopping into Theater is a Sport today.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this is my own little piece of the internet to talk about all things theater.

I have written about the subject of learning lines before, about a year and a half ago, and in that time, I have had some experiences that have changed my outlook a little bit.  So, at the risk of repeating myself somewhat, I offer these thoughts to you.

I'm asked a lot by people who have never in a play, how I learn my lines.  In fact, the conversation is usually something like this:

ADORING FAN:  I saw you in that play last weekend!  Lord, I don't know how you remember all those lines!

ME:  Oh, well, I'm glad you liked the...

ADORING FAN:  I'd get up on stage some time, but I just couldn't do it.  Remember all those lines! I can't even memorize my shopping list...

ME:  Well, it just takes practice, and...

ADORING FAN:  I mean, I could probably ACT circles around you!  You're nothing special, you know!  It's just the whole memorizing lines thing that keeps me from wiping the floor with your sorry butt!

ME:  Ah, I see.  Listen...

ADORING FAN:  No, you listen, Mr.  "I think I'm so great because I can memorize lines!"  I could be an actor, too, you know!

ME:  Ummm... right, it's just...


ME:  Ummm.... the minister is talking right now, and people are starting at us.

In any case, usually, from these interactions, I get the idea that some people think that acting really is as simple as just learning lines.  In my opinion, I think learning lines should be the easiest part of being in a play.

Having said this, learning lines IS  important, and can be very challenging.  That's why I thought I'd offer a few tips and suggestions.  These are all things that have worked for either myself or other people I know.  They may not work for everybody.

First off, let's deal with this question:  At what point in the rehearsal process should you be off book? It's a good, fair, question, obviously with different schools of thought on the subject.  The brilliant Simon Callow offers some thoughts on the subject in his book, Being an Actor.  He suggests that, if you have a lead role, you should be off book by the first rehearsal.  On the other hand, if you have a small supporting role, he suggests you wait, for fear of growing bored with the text, among other reasons.

I can see what he's saying.  Last summer, I was in a play where it was required to be off book by the first rehearsal.  I've never really worked that way before, and was a little nervous, since I had so much to say, and, usually, it's the repetition of rehearsals that help me to memorize lines.  But, I did my best, and, I must say, I liked being off book earlier (though the scripts were still around to act as crutches).  It enabled a sense of making connections with other actors earlier in the process.  The lines and their meanings seemed to internalize earlier, as well, and, of course, it made blocking that much easier as well.  However, I do believe good, solid, productive work can still be accomplished with book in hand, but, I must confess, learning in advance really was a great experience that I think I'm going to keep trying for future plays I'm in.  For one thing, it forces everyone, even if not completely off book, to really know the story and how their character helps to tell it.

All right.  Down to the nitty gritty.  How do you learn your lines?

I used to be somewhat luckier than I am not.  I could read through a script over and  over, and just absorb my lines (and pretty much everyone else's, too).  As I've gotten a little older, it's not quite that simple.  So here are some other techniques:

KNOW YOUR CHARACTER and WHAT THEY WANT--- This, of course, is vital, even outside of learning your lines.  However, if you know your character, know what they want from scene to scene and know how they intend to get what they want, the lines make more sense, and, thus, are easier to remember.

HIGHLIGHT YOUR LINES:  It's a visual thing, and it helps.  It also ensures that you are learning ALL of your lines and not missing some.

RECORD YOUR LINES--- This helped me out last summer.  I made a few recordings on my iPad.  On the first, I read all my cues (in different voices), and then all my lines (in my voice).  I would listen to this recording a lot.  I'd wear headphones, and speak with my recorded voice.  As I grew more confident, I made another recording, this time with just my cues, and dead air in between them, for me to speak my lines out loud.  This came in handy when I didn't have another person to help cue me,  Which leads to...

HAVE SOMEONE CUE YOU--- Enlist a friend or family member to take the script, and read your cues.  Have them correct you if you make a mistake (instruct them to merciless on this, pretty much word-for-word).  If you don't know a line, have them read it to you, repeat it out loud, then have them go back and give you the cue again.  It can be a tedious process, but it has the benefit of really working well.  Warning:  you most likely will get frustrated, especially if they have to correct you a lot, but that's okay.  Just take it line by line.

USE YOUR RECORDED LINES WHEN EXERCISING---  I have friends who swear by this, and I've tried it, too.  Physical activity opens up the brain for absorption.  It's a great time to run through lines in your head, or through your earphones.  Exercising, from what I hear, is also healthy.


One thing I would strongly recommend, and Callow makes note of this in his book as well, is to not memorize your performance.  Memorize your lines.  Don'g get married to how you say your lines, but just to the lines themselves.  Meisner always said to learn lines by rote, so that you can react naturally on stage.  This is easier said than done, of course, and, you're bound to memorize your lines with some expression to them.  However, don't let this keep you from letting that go, and reacting naturally with your scene partners, and don't let it keep you from discovering new things about your character.

One last thing--- even though I'm a playwright, I don't think a script suffers from an occasional line that isn't said 100% as written.  In fact, that's bound to happen.  I still recommend trying to learn your lines verbatim, because then, you will hopefully be so aware of your character's intentions, that if your mind does go blank, you can get a close facsimile of your line out of your mouth.

I know there are many other thoughts and techniques about learning lines, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  Please comment below.  This is a place to share, after all.  We've all got our theater stories to tell.

Just remember--- memorizing lines is essential.  Just don't memorize your performance.

Break a leg!

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