Memorizing Lines (And Other Forms of Theatrical Torture)

Are you struggling to memorize lines for an onstage role? There are no magical shortcuts, but these ideas can remove some of the torture from the equation.

I hate lines.

Oh, I love performing them–there’s nothing better than acting for an appreciative audience. But memorizing lines? I’ll take a root canal instead, thanks. Studying a role is the bane of every actor’s existence.

Memorization is not for the fainthearted. Still, almost anyone can do it–if you’re willing to invest some time. (And I don’t mean cramming for three hours the night before dress rehearsal.) Here’s a four-step process that makes line-learning a bit easier for me. Maybe it will work for you, too.

1. Silently read the script.

As soon as the director hands you a playbook, read the whole thing. That will help you get the story fixed in your mind. Then focus on your own part by reading your lines over and over again. You also need to familiarize yourself with the cues, which are the lines that come right before yours. Knowing your own dialogue won’t help if you don’t know when to say it.

2. Test yourself.

After you’ve read silently for a while, check your memory. Cover one line with a piece of paper and read the cue right before it. Can you recite your part from memory without moving the paper? If not, read the forgotten line out loud several times in a row. Now, check yourself with the paper again: Did you get it right this time? Many directors require you to learn dialogue word-for-word. It’s not because they’re cruel (okay, some of them are)–it’s because each of your lines is a cue for someone else. If you don’t say the correct words, a fellow performer may miss saying his entirely.

3. Ask a friend or family member to “run lines.”

Beg a patient soul to hold your script and read your cues aloud. Then try to say your lines in the right places without peeking at the page, and without stopping to think. (You aren’t truly “off book” until you can run lines without any pauses.) For some actors, finding a helper is the single best way to memorize. He or she can also show you how much work you still need to do by circling the places where you struggle.

4. Work on the hard parts.

It’s tempting to spend time on parts of the script that you “mostly know” already–but that won’t help you reach your goal. When you review, focus on the lines your helper circled for you in step three, and on any other segments you don’t know yet.

* * *

These four steps work just fine for some actors. But maybe you’re one of those people who really struggle with memorization, and you’re searching for an easier way.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic fix–and putting off memorization only makes things worse. Forgetting a line on opening night, or carrying a script onstage while trying to improvise your way through a scene, are like buying your own ticket to a bad performance. Drama is a team sport, and one actor who isn’t prepared can derail an entire show.

So even if learning lines is hard for you, don’t take shortcuts: Memorization is a necessary evil. Here are a few more ideas to help you succeed.

1. Read your cues and lines into a voice recorder.

Chances are, your cell phone or computer can do the job. After making the recording, you can play it back when you practice, pressing “pause” after each cue. Say your line aloud before you resume playback to check yourself.

2. Run through the movements (blocking) that the director gave you in rehearsal.

You may feel strange doing this at home with no one else around while you memorize, but “learning by doing” really helps some people. Meanwhile, experiment with different ways of delivering each line. That will keep you focused on the task, and also help you remain flexible for the performance.

3. Get together with some other actors and run lines with each other.

If you can’t do it in person, use Skype, or another web-based communication tool. Feel free to enjoy the other actors’ company, but stay focused on the task at hand.

These ideas may not make line-learning fun, but they can eliminate most of the torture. Remember, you can only enjoy the fun parts of acting once those lines are memorized! Digging into a character, thrilling to the excitement of a live audience . . . those are the reasons why we act. Line-learning is just a necessary evil along the way. Trust me: Opening night is a lot more fun when your lines are rock-solid. Make that your goal the next time you perform.

Copyright © 2012 George Halitzka. All rights reserved. This article was first published in the Fall 2012 issue of Let’s Worship.