How to Memorize Lines for a Script or Play
Many Ways to Memorize
The key to memorizing a script or play is to have the lines and cues down solid in a realistic time frame for performance. There are a number of ways I know of to memorize lines. I have my favorite ways, and other people have their favorite ways. I'm going to include all of the ways I know of in this article with pros and cons (if any), so that you can make your own decision about the best way to progress with memorizing your lines.
My Own Experience
I have been an actress in several plays and short films. I have been interested in memory techniques and training for a while and have done my own research online and then practiced different methods with the plays and acting classes I've been involved in. I am also a lifetime member/student of The School of Phenomenal Memory, which teaches memorization and visualization skills that enable anyone, with practice, to memorize entire books or scripts using their method.
Traditional is Not Bad
The Most Common Method
The most common method for memorizing lines is simply a pure repetition of the lines without a real road-map for memorization other than the constant re-reading, rehearsal, and self-testing of lines, script, and story. This process works well although is not as fast as some other methods I will describe later. It works well because repetition and self-testing reinforce the memory connections for the lines/ideas that are in your head. The more (aware and mindful) repetition that is done, the better the results. By aware and mindful, I mean learning the lines with your full attention, so you are aware of their significance and are not simply blandly repeating or reading the script without bringing your own focus and concentration to the process.
Included in this method of memorizing is usually a period of time prior to rehearsals begin of self-study and self testing of lines. The more diligent the actor works to ensure they have their lines down, the more time they put into making sure they know their lines and the more time that is put into going over the script, the better the end result is as far as having the lines down.
This way of memorizing also includes what's called "rote" memorization, which is working on getting the lines in your head by constant repetition and self testing, without adding any additional color or style to the recall, so that you can be "fresh" and respond naturally to the other actors in the scene. You work on the deeper meaning and motivation also but for learning the lines, you just keep practicing until "you know it in your sleep."
This process of memorizing can also include writing down the lines, which reinforces the memory connections also. Another variation on this method is to write the lines down on notecards which are carried through the scene during rehearsal as a crutch or help for the lines.
This process may also include working with (usually) a stage manager during rehearsals, so that the actor can say "line" when they forget a line and receive it immediately. (The stage manager is of course following along in the script during the portrayal of the scene for this purpose.)
Pros: This common method does work to learn lines and is not a bad method. It works and many, if not most of our great, famous actors do learn their lines with this method or something very similar. By learning lines without inflections, you'll be able to stay fresh and in the moment during rehearsals and performance because you'll be able to come out with the line without worry, a preplanned delivery, or much thought/concentration, the line will be just there.
Cons: The only con in this method is not really a con ~ it is only that this common method of memorization can be slower than a new method being taught by The School of Phenomenal Memory which, compared to this process, is much, much faster. The School of Phenomenal Memory and its method called GMS (Giordano Memorization System) will be discussed further as another way to memorize lines later on in this article.
Memorization By Daily Repetition
This way of memorizing involves reading the entire script, start to finish, every single day from day one. This is an effective way of memorizing because the more exposure you have to the lines and sequence of the story, the more ingrained the script will become in your head. Slow, thoughtful reading also allows you to analyze for the meaning of each part of the script and daily study reinforces the habit and helps cover all parts of the script ~ meaning that it'll be harder for you to forget a part with each successive reading.
Another way to use this memorization method is to have multiple readings of the script in a day, and daily repetition of this habit. This increases the exposure time you have to the story and lines and gets you well acquainted with the entire script on a regular basis, increasing the speed with which you memorize.
Pros: This way of memorizing gives you a very clear idea of the total arc and outline of the script. Multiple daily readings help you learn the lines quickly, especially with self testing adding.
Cons: Reading the entire script can be time consuming. Knowing the whole story already can give a sense of tediousness to this process.
Memorization with Improvisation
This way of memorizing is by saying the meaning of the scene, part by part (as in each idea chunk), and each time bring the improvisation closer and closer to the actual lines until that is what is always said.
Pros: Some people find this way of memorizing very helpful in personalizing the script.
Cons: It can be very easy to miss the true meaning of the line or lines because you'll be not saying exactly what is written but what you come up with in your improvisation. Another danger is accidentally learning the lines incorrectly. To use this way of learning lines best, I recommend that you do constant self tests to check and see how close you are to the actual lines, and correct yourself when you are wrong. You must keep an awareness of when you think you are getting the lines down but when you actually have it wrong. A large part of enjoyment of a good script is appreciating the nuances of the language that the talented writer has chosen to tell the tale.
Using an Audio Track: Constant Listening
Another way to memorize which is sometimes used alone or sometimes combined with other methods, is to record the entire script onto a cassette tape or onto a CD, and then to play the audio in daily life as much as possible. This way works to reinforce the story line and characters' lines with constant aural repetition.
Pros: The more repetition, the more the brain connections are reinforced, so this method does work.
Cons: It is not always easy to find time to listen to the tape or CD. One's mind can wander while the tape is playing. One way to combat these cons is to listen to the tape while doing a monotonous task which does not take much of your attention, like a long walk or during exercise, like a jog or run, and to make a mental effort to pay attention to the story and lines.
Using an Audio Track: Cue Testing
Another way to use a recorded audio cassette or CD with the lines on it is to either record only your cues or to press pause constantly after you hear your cue. In this way you can self test to see if you know your line. By constantly self testing like this, you force yourself to see if you know the line and make your brain make the connection to the proper line from the cue.
Pros: This method works pretty well since self testing is a large part of reinforcing brain cell connections for the line and cue.
Cons: There is a possibility of not learning the whole story line of the script very well ~ of not having a big "bird's eye" view of the story with this method without more work on understanding the arc of the whole story. In some cases, depending on the script, this problem can mean throwing out a line that is some lines later, and would be especially troublesome in scripts where the lines and cues are similar phrases. Another con may be that for more visually-inclined learners, not being able to physically see and read the script can mean learning this way is much more tough for them.
This way of memorizing I discovered from an online search many years ago. I have found it very useful and fast. It includes aspects of the Common Memorization Method but changes the structure, which makes memorizing an entire piece of work (monologue, scene, or whole script) seem much more cohesive and much less work overall.
How to Memorize Backwards and Why to Do So
You simply start at the end and work your way, line by line, scene by scene, to the beginning of the script or scene. You self test each line as you learn it, and each time you learn the line, you continue your memorization recall all the way to the end. As with the Common Method of memorizing, you'll want to speak out loud the lines as you are learning them. So you will learn the last line, speak it out loud. Test yourself. What is the cue for it? See if you can say the entire line/lines without checking the script. Once you can, you add the line chunks just before it. Your line, the cue for your last line, and then speak your last line. You are constantly self checking your lines and recalling all that you have previously learned. So you bit by bit learn the scene from the last line up, or the monologue from the last line up, doing full spoken out loud recall with each new line.
Of course, if you are learning an entire script, you will learn it scene by scene, starting with the last scene. To ensure you understand the arc and flow of the story, I would heartily recommend that you write out a simple outline of the whole script so that you understand the basic stages of the story at any given point. That way, when you begin learning the very last scene, you'll understand that it's the conclusion to the climax that happened X and how it relates to other parts of the script and where they happened at.
Pros: Because you are recalling the entire last part of the scene every single time you learn a new line, you get your lines down very solidly. With every new line you learn, you are already off-script with the all that goes after that line. You always feel like you know where you are going with this method. This is very psychologically satisfying. Memorizing in this backwards way also incorporates a lot of self checking into the process, and self checking is what builds the connections in your brain cells for getting the script in your head. I like this method a lot and it is one of my favorite ways to learn a script or scene.
Cons: While the backwards memorization method is usually a bit faster than the Common Method for memorization, I wouldn't say it is as fast as memorizing with GMS. Until you have an understanding of the flow of the story, it can feel very odd to learn the last part of the story and the end of scenes without knowing the beginning.
Memorizing with a Trigger Method
This way of memorizing involves analysis of the script and each cue for the trigger than motivates your character's response. This way of memorizing involves deep analysis and also self testing and repetition/exposure of the script.
Pros: When done properly this method will help you in acting by having a deep understanding of your character's moment to moment motivations. When a cue is said you'll understand what therein motivates your character and can already be responding at what would be a natural, appropriate time for your character. This can help your acting greatly and keep the acting fresh and alive. Also, if another character messes up their cue, you'll still be able to handle your response well as you are not as prone as other actors may be for an exact word-for-word perfect cue.
Cons: If you are not careful, you might throw out lines that are for the wrong cue but a same or similar motivation. One actress I was in a play with used a trigger-type method for learning her lines but regularly skipped us around by saying lines for the wrong cue. It was a bit frustrating to find ourselves 6 pages later thanks to the wrong line being said! So while I think this method has much merit, I also feel it's important to combine it with other methods of memorization so you'll be confident in your responses.
Memorizing with Self Understanding and Images
This way of memorizing takes some time to learn, a bit of skill and practice, but it is fun and fast once you've got it down.
It involves learning to create a string of images in your mind for each idea chunk in the script or scene, and then memorizing the lines onto the idea-chunk-images. First you must break the script into scenes (usually this is done for you). Then you break the scenes into idea chunks. These idea chunks are then personalized by thinking about the character's motivations and bringing your own memory and imagination into play so you deeply understand what is going on for each idea chunk. Then you choose a simple visual image for the idea chunk and connect it to the next idea chunk image. You hold the two images in mind for some seconds (connected together) and then connect the third idea chunk to the second image the same way, and so on. You are then able to scroll through your images and see for yourself, in your mind, an outline for the scene or script.
Now as you learn the lines, think of the idea chunk image for each part you're learning. What ends up happening during rehearsal is you have the idea chunk image for the next part in your head and you are always knowing your place, until the lines become reflex and down enough in your memory that your full attention can be put on the moment.
This way of memorizing also includes self test and repetition of exposure of the script, but as you go through rehearsing you're able to use the general idea chunk images as needed to know the next part of the story or the next scene.
Pros: This way encourages a deep acquaintance with the script as you have to create images and do a thorough script analysis and breakdown.
Cons: Creating images for the idea chunks can be slow. You can take yourself out of the moment if you are thinking of images rather than relating to what is being said. (However this typically goes away after the lines become more ingrained with rehearsal and more rote-like work with repetition/line learning.)
My Experience with GMS
I have written about my experiences at The School of Phenomenal Memory which you can read here:
How to Memorize Quickly and Efficiently
I am a current and happy lifetime member and student of the school, so if you have any questions, feel free to ask!
The School of Phenomenal Memory ~ The GMS Method
The School of Phenomenal Memory is a memory training program that teaches a specific, organized method of memorization called GMS (Giordano Memorization System) through 60 practical, intense memorization lessons. GMS involves using a developed visualization skill to mentally connect images that represent abstract information into a visual database in the head that can be reviewed with mental scrolling of images. Once the visual database is secure in the head, the actor would practice recalling out loud until the entire script is secure and reflexive, meaning the visual images can be used on occasion as a crutch but the script has been internalized. This whole process is very fast compared to more traditional ways of memorizing.
Pros: The benefit of GMS with memorizing scripts is that learning the entire script can happen much more quickly than with other methods of memorization. The process of using GMS also includes a deep understanding of the text, as that is part of the natural outcome of practicing memorization in this nature.
Cons: In order to develop the ability to perform GMS, it is necessary to complete 60 intensive, time consuming lessons to develop a strong visualization and concentration skill. However, an adept student of GMS should have no problem committing scripts to memory with ease, having increased their ability to visualize and concentrate with the exercises and practice provided by the School of Phenomenal Memory. The other con is that The School of Phenomenal Memory is not free, so this method does have a price. Life time membership is regularly about $300, which is about the price of a college course, more or less. Additionally, The School of Phenomenal Memory can be used for any kind of learning, so if you are in school, it will also help you quickly boost your school grades. Another potential con with using this method is that you still must do enough recall to internalize the script so you can be fresh and ready ~ in the moment ~ for rehearsals and performances.
Now, Break a Leg!
There seem to be as many ways to memorize as there are actors out there. Everyone has their own best way to memorize that works for them. I hope I've given you some good choices to try out with your next project. Have fun!