Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Do You Remember All Those Lines?

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!



  1. As a professional actor, your response seems obvious, but I still find it really useful. Thank you!

  2. Cool post. I typically write mine out while reading aloud at the same time. That way, I am not so much thinking about "how I'll say it." I am simply reciting as a spell out words on a page. But doing all this (writing/doing, reading/seeing, and saying/hearing and doing)at the same time helps me remember.

    1. I do that too! Somehow, the writing and speaking aloud at the same time make a difference.

  3. It's interesting that in many famous film scenes, the lines that became immortalized were NOT in fact what was written in the script, sometimes not even what the actor had said in the previous take.

    That can only happen when the actor is really invested in their character and in the message that they're getting across and its emotional truth.

    Of course, film actors usually get a pass regarding line learning, since they don't have to know all of them at once! That's why stage actors get the question so often "How do you remember all those lines?" Really we are being asked "How do you remember 2 hours' worth of lines and say them all in the right order?" :-)

    Does anyone have one of those great "going in circles" stories, where you're onstage and you realize you've somehow come to a part of the scene THAT YOU'VE ALREADY DONE TONIGHT!!!? Getting out of that situation without the audience realizing is always interesting...

    1. I was in that situation once, when I played an autistic girl who couldn't really speak, and the actress playing my mother was bouncing around the script. It was up to the actress playing my sister to dig us out, since I didn't have a way to form a sentence!

  4. Wow, awesome blog post as usual! When memorizing, I always start out with the focus on just the words and not delivery and meaning, but my brain is SO EAGER to make those choices right off the bat, because then I will be SAFE!! Then I am trapped in a habit that takes me away from living through the situation.

    When we were doing a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest the other night, I STILL had speech and delivery patterns from when I was in the show 5 years ago. That is how powerful these habits become.

  5. I find that I memorize the situation instead of the words. If the writer did his/her job and I am living in the character and doing my job, the reactions to what is happening on stage should be natural and just come right out of your mouth. Once I have the world memorized I try to further it by getting the words by rote (part of my Meisner training) and therefore I can react honestly instead of the same way every night.
    The hardest part for me is always sitting down and doing the work. I'd rather think about it than memorize... or comment on a blog about memorizing instead of memorizing...

    1. Oy. Yep, doing the work is what gets me, every time...

  6. I like kara am meisner trained and rote will keep you away from these bad habits but I am guilty of jumping the gun despite my training and projecting how the lines will be on stages or once in a blue moon on -camera. I just have to find a way of breaking these bad habits. I loved your memorization tips especially your accents and song techniques. The few times I did that it helped me memorize and it was fun what a concept!!!


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