We asked for suggestions. Of course, this was at the top of the list. And though I could scoff at it, like every actor does in any talk-back...why not answer it?
This paragraph is for the laymen out there. If you are a seasoned actor, you may skip down. I give you permission. The reason why every actor cringes when asked this question is because acting holds a far greater challenge than remembering lines. It's much harder to believe a situation and live it out truthfully, as if if were the first time, at 8pm every night. Line memorization is the simplest part of acting. It requires repetition - in the same way that remembering the words and notes of a song requires you to play it over and over. After a certain amount of times, the lines should be able to be fired off with the same kind of ease that most people sing "Happy Birthday". Also, memorization is easier to do when you do it frequently. It works like any other muscle.
That said, line memorization poses a big problem to actors. Most of the time, actors have such engrained patterns of speech that there is no way for the truth of the moment to be expressed. Many actors spend so much time planning out their thoughts in a given scene that there is no possibility for anything other than a planned response. Thus, much of the work we see onstage carries very little life.
It's a rare day that I work with an actor, who knows how to discover new meanings in a scene. And that's an important part of being alive onstage. Many actors respond with the same meaning no matter what stimulus is given them. You could be screaming or crying or whispering, and you'll still get your true blue response from your scene partner. I've known plenty of actors to wear that badge as though it's a medal ("I didn't change a thing tonight.") But they did. They changed their belief in the situation. They stopped talking and listening. And as Bobby Lewis said, "If it's not talking and listening, it really doesn't matter how much more it is."
So...HOW DO YOU REMEMBER ALL THOSE LINES? How do you do it in such a way that you retain enough flexibility for your moment to moment responses to come through? Nobody ever seems to talk about line memorization. Yet it is an important part of acting. And to do it in a manner that will serve you is much more difficult than it seems.
Here are some tricks I've learned to allow you freedom in your work:
1.) You need to know the lines so well that you don't have to think in order to remember them. That way, they can take on whatever meaning or interpretation exists impulsively in you. Often times, when we learn lines quickly, we have to group them into settled meanings in order for our short-term memory to grab ahold. It is necessary that you don't need to reach for your words, so you can put your attention on the circumstances of the play, your own creative and imaginative work, and your scene partner. That, in and of itself, will do wonders for your work.
2.) Try writing them out without punctuation to disassociate the structure from the thoughts. I suggest writing, because it's more active than typing, but either works. Keep in mind that people do not speak, using syntax. That is a writer's device to express thought on a page. Very frequently, people do not pause for commas or make full-stops at periods when talking. So, you have to have the same kind of freedom in your speech to emphasize wherever makes the best sense in the moment.
3.) Try to keep your mind off of the meanings and focus more on the sound of the words. This is an incredibly difficult way to memorize lines, but if you can hold off from making acting choices while repeating lines for the purposes of memorization, you'll be half-way there. Trust that you will be able to add the meaning in performance, because you are a living human being in a situation. In order to memorize this way, I often have to go one sentence at a time. After I say it ten times, I can add the next sentence. And then I do that ten times. It's a painstaking process, but well worth it.
4.) Try using different accents. On top of the fact that it's just FUN, it's also a good way to keep yourself from emphasizing the same words or sticking to the same verbal patterns.
5.) Mess with the pacing. Go through very quickly and then very slowly. That will force your brain to think differently and help break or avoid patterns.
6.) Sing the words. This is the most helpful thing you can do. It forces you to provide a completely new structure to the lines. I almost always forget the lines when I do this. Don't worry. You're building new synapses, so you'll be able to play more in your work onstage.
I'm sure that some alarms are going off. But keep in mind...
Jimmy Cagney's famous quote is "Look 'em in the eye, and tell them the TRUTH." - It's not 'Tell them the LINE'. That's immensely important. You have to be able to express the truth of the moment. Not last night's truth. Not the truth you wish were there. The truth that is going on with YOU right then, right there.
Thoughts? Stories? I'll even take horror stories from those days when either you or your scene partner went up. Those are always fun. Let's hear it!