Learning the Lines – An actors approach

learning lines
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We are delighted to republish Prof. John Palmer’s ‘Theatre Briefs’ series, Actor Hub hope you find them as useful as we have.
This series of short essays about acting is reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John P Palmer of London, Ontario, Canada. He wrote these ‘Theatre Briefs’ for use by students and fellow actors during classes and rehearsals. Where he has relied on material from others, they are cited.
Notice that this brief is called “learning lines”, not “memorising lines.” Everyone I know says that it is easier to memorise lines if you learn them in the context of the actions and the character’s intentions for each situation. One of the best devices for learning your lines is to study your character. Be sure to explore the questions distributed in the previous brief, and use your answers to help you understand the context of each line.
First, learning lines takes time and work. Few people are able to do this without an investment of considerable time. Begin early by highlighting your lines and actions and by working on character development all the time.
Actually, I don’t highlight the lines anymore. I just highlight the name at the beginning of each line and every time it appears in connection with some action.
Second, some people find that using tape recorders helps; others like to bounce lines off a partner who reads the cues. If the technique you’re using doesn’t work, try something else. When I was commuting to work, I found that reading my cues into a voice recorder and pausing before reading my own lines worked well. I then worked with the recording while I was commuting. Now that I no longer commute, working with my wonderfully helpful and insightful wife has been a great help.
While some actors memorise easily, many others — some of the greatest – have great difficulty. Whatever your case, you will not be chosen for your facility at memorisation. No one has ever won an Academy Award for that!
But not all people like this approach. Norman Schwartz says, “I very much disagree with the usual method which asks the actor to immediately set about memorising the text line by line. I find that “learning by rote,” as it is sometimes called, is not the best way. Rather than memorise by rote, I suggest that you begin by KNOWING the character by imagining (him or) her.” …. which is why the first brief was about getting to know the character.
He continues, “As you answer these questions (those in brief #1) you will by necessity have to summon up some vivid images of the life of the character, and even create a short history. The answers to these questions are not necessarily to be found in the script, of course. Essentially, they are in your imagination and your sense and knowledge of life. The more you exercise these muscles of imagination, the more you KNOW. This is a good way to put it: “exercise the muscles of imagination.”
“It has been my experience that the more you know, the easier eventual verbal memorisation becomes. While some actors memorise easily, many others — some of the greatest – have great difficulty. Whatever your case, you will not be (and probably were not) chosen for (any role because of) your facility at memorisation. (No one has ever won an Academy Award for that!) If you are chosen to play (a given role), it will be because of your ability to convince the director and his/her staff that you are the character they are looking for …”
Finally, you must continually re-read the play and review your lines, even if you think you know them. Doing so will have two benefits:
  • you will keep studying the characters, not just yours, and, as a result, you’ll give a deeper, richer performance
  • you will relearn lines that you’ve learned incorrectly.
An agent in Toronto once told me that when you see someone walking down the street talking to themself, you know they’re either crazy or an actor.
Once you have a reasonable grasp of the lines, you can cement them even more by running them in funny accents and voices, running them while pottering around the room, standing on your head, or working out on a treadmill, and running them with your friend repeating only the last five words of every cue line without any intervening text.
Make up other games as you like. This should help prevent the following exchange from ever occurring in rehearsal:
You: But last night I knew my lines backwards!
Director: And that’s exactly how you said them.
If you find that you are having consistent trouble in certain spots, you may need to work with your director to break through the block. Unless it is a very badly written play, there is probably a clue in the text itself or the surrounding text that you are missing. Once you have a better sense of the line’s meaning and purpose (and its relationship to the previous line, whether yours or someone else’s), the block should disappear.
Sometimes the problem is that a character’s lines are written in a rhythm very different from your own 9many actors find this to be the case with Shakespeare, Marlowe, et al.) In that case, you have to first acknowledge the problem, and then will yourself to overcome it. I don’t know of any tricks that will magically make that particular difficulty disappear, though perhaps someone else will have some good ideas.
Sometimes the problem can be solved with an adjustment of physical business (perhaps your blocking, perhaps something you are doing with a prop), but again, you need to work that out with your director. Do check to make sure that you are properly relaxed and centred, and that your weight is evenly distributed except when it absolutely needs to be on one foot. You’d be surprised how many line problems are solved by shifting your weight to the correct foot or evenly to both!
You’d be surprised how many line problems are solved by shifting your weight to the correct foot or evenly to both!
Same for breathing–don’t forget to do it! Although not all playwrights are as generous (and brilliant) as Shakespeare in providing you with organic internal breathing cues (so that you can breathe in a natural place and come in on cue without leaving large pauses for trucks to drive through), in most plays you can usually find good places to set yourself up with a good breath if you study your cues as thoroughly as your lines. That helps line memorisation, too, by removing one more obstacle to making sense and keeping pace (rhythm, not speed) up, to say nothing of getting oxygen to your brain.
Don’t forget basic mnemonic devices. If your lines contain series of words that you keep getting in the wrong order, try to find something you can use as a mental map to get you through. Do the words occur in alphabetical order? Or skip from A to D to B to E? Do they range from weakest concept to strongest? Relate to big objects, then small ones? From containers to the things contained? These don’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Just pick some aspect of the words as words that you can relate to a consistent theme of some kind, whether spelling, grammar, rhetoric, number of syllables, flavour, smell … whatever.

These essays may be reproduced at no charge for non-commercial purposes. Just please acknowledge the original source (John Palmer) and his blog Eclectecon.
Also please retain the attributions included in the briefs.
You may not use these resources for commercial purposes.