Learning Your Lines - A Beginners Guide
Learning lines is often the bane of every budding thespian’s life when it comes to putting on a show. You can’t get up and be your best self script in hand - so you have to sit down and do the hard work of remembering reams of dialogue and the order of conversation. Learning lines is like singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ pitch perfect in an operatic style; we could all do it, but it takes time and technique to perfect.
When it boils down to it all, the audience won’t be sat in front of you, with a copy of the libretto meticulously judging you for misremembering each word - they’re there for a good time after all. What an audience want is to be entertained. So first off, stop panicking about remembering the script and focus on the performance; the script will come to you!
Recalling dialogue is a skill, and one you must practice. However there are tricks you can learn along the way to help you to build up your memory skills. A fantastic trick for memory is association. One thing I like to do is record a scene into the ‘voice memo’ app on my iPhone, then when I’m driving to work I’ll press play and vocally perform the scene in my car to my blueberry scented air-freshener, to cement it into my brain. The beauty of doing it on the same journey is the recording will always be the same, and you find yourself subconsciously saying “Oh when I pass Sams house I should be talking about ‘The candle on the mantlepiece’”, and the art of association takes over.
This is why a lot of people claim they learn lines best from acting it out in rehearsals - and it’s true for some. Some people are kinaesthetic learners, which means they learn best from doing it. But please never be fooled into thinking your should ONLY do this, as you will find yourself falling behind if the director chooses to not cover your scenes for a while.
Second to this, a great way to learn your lines is to run them with someone - a fellow actor, a partner or a parent, someone supportive is always preferred. If you make a mistake this person can pick you up and say “The candle is on the mahogany mantlepiece”. This will definitely help you with minor corrections, especially when you heave learned the bulk of the speech. I would say it is far more important to learn the structure of events and the sequence in which they happen; that way if you do mess up on show night, having a strong character will help you to improvise lines along a similar vain (but get back to the script asap).
When learning monologues, especially soliloquies, one method I favour is writing them down - as though it’s a very personal diary. You can type them on a computer, but writing them by hand is so much more engaging and connected, it may even help you to focus on certain words and pace, which will help your delivery of the piece. Try to be in a distraction free environment and put pen to paper and write out your lines. When I was learning Hamlets first soliloquy, this was amazing for me. I would write it out once a day for 2 weeks; day one with the script in front of me, and slowly I would remember certain phrases, then sentences, then paragraphs, until mid week 2 I could remember and write it all; word for word. I can still remember it all to this day!
A problem many people have with learning lines is they try and do it all in a free evening. ‘I’ve got 5 hours to myself, time to learn my lines’. I promise you by hour 2, if not before, you will be bored and your brain will have switched off or gone into overload. It isn’t going to happen. If you are going to hit the line learning hard, make sure to take regular breaks. Now I don’t just mean stick the kettle on or watch 5 minutes of your favourite quiz show on ITV. I mean a real break; go and have a walk, go and have a nap; little and often, this is real science! The brain will store recall memory, like your lines, in short term memory (half a day max), but if you allow your brain time to process the information, it is more likely to be stored in long term memory.
But hey there’s nothing wrong with running your lines in your head while you are on your stroll in the park. We’re called Elemental Theatre for a reason - outside rehearsals and line learning sessions are an invaluable addition to any theatre companies rehearsal process.
Learn your cue lines! I can’t stress enough the importance of this, learn your cue lines! We can all name the diva who strolls into the rehearsal room in week 2 and loudly claims “I know all my lines”, many of them even follow this by performing a section from one of their more challenging monologues. Then when you get up on stage, cries of ‘line please’ and ‘where is diva? She should be on stage!’. There is no point learning your lines if you don’t know when to say them. On a similar thought process - please learn the end of your lines too, as they are other peoples cues!
Dialogue is the more tricky to learn, personally. There are apps out there such as ‘Line Learner’ and ‘Rehearsal Pro’ which can aid you, but essentially you need to say these lines aloud as a conversation - as they are intended. A friend of mine learns conversations by making a flow diagram of the conversation topics: Talks about Susan > Susan is in hospital? > What is wrong with Susan? > A Rhinoplasty, at her age.
Do what you must do to get the flow of the conversation in your head. Pictures, repetition, move around. I couldn’t tell you the technique for you, as they are all different.
A nice little trick a mentor once told me about monologues however, relies on the age old saying ‘Repetition is the mother of learning’. Take a speech you need to learn, start with the first line “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.”, up to a comfortable or punctuation pause. Set a timer for 30 seconds and repeat that line for 30 seconds, then line two “Thaw and resolve itself into a dew”, another 30 seconds. “Or that the everlasting had not fixed it’s cannon ‘gainst self slaughter”, another 30 seconds. And so on. This will help you learn your phrases and sentences no doubt.
At this point you can implement a different method to learn the order, hope that this alone has worked, or next time you visit your lines, give yourself 45 seconds to do two of the lines together “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt. Thaw and resolve itself into a dew”. You can keep going up in a linear fashion, 1 minute, 3 lines.
As I’ve said, and will continue to say time and time again, there isn’t a one fix solves all. There is no youtube video you can watch that in 4 minutes and 33 seconds can tell you the secrets to how ‘Hollywood stars learn there lines’. Believe me, if I was paid £1million I’d be able to learn lines a lot faster. It’s practice, and it’s finding what works for you.
Some people like to rip apart a piece of text, learn all that there is to it, find every nuance and motive. Some people like to perform there lines as a rap or song. Some try do say it as fast as possible with the correct diction. Funny voices. Silly movements to represent words or phrases. Flash cards. Set a routine and deadline. The list goes on.
In summary, I can’t help you learn your lines. The best guidance and advice I could possibly give is don’t beat yourself up, don’t think “I can’t do this”, don’t cram, and don’t stress. Take your time, do as much as you can, when you can. Bellow I have listed some of the techniques I mentioned above in an easy to remember list.
1. Repetition is the Mother of Learning Simply try repeating sections you are struggling to memorise, you can break these down into smaller chunks, sentences or phrases if it helps, and piece them together at a later date.
2. Write it down The old school method, write down what I say and it might go in your head. We have been doing it for years at collage and university, why not here. Write out your lines by hand.
3. Simply, practice It sounds simple, but practice little and often to get your lines embedded in your long term memory. 30 minutes a day is nothing realistically.
4. Have a break - Have a kitkat! Keep hydrated, keep well fed, and give yourself a break from time to time. There is no point over-working yourself. After a solid hour of revising, your brain will stop processing what you are doing.
5. Record it Record everyone else’s lines into your phone and play it, fill the silences with your lines - it doesn’t matter if you do it with or without the script. Saying your lines aloud will always help.
6. Cue lines! LEARN YOUR CUE LINES
7. Give us a clue There is nothing wrong with a cheat sheet. Pictures, drawings, movement, flash cards, whatever helps you to remember the order in which things are done. You’re not cheating yourself, you’re just helping yourself to learn.
8. HAVE FUN At the end of it all, if you’re not enjoying it - take a break, have some fun and come back to it. Learning lines or rehearsing in a bad mood is not helpful, and can often push a shows progress back, instead of forward.