How to Learn Your Acting Lines—Quick and Easy Tips
Learn Your Lines
There are tried and trusted methods for how to learn your acting lines. In this article, I'll be looking at some of the popular ways you can make the words stick as well as some tricks of the trade that will help those who need to 'cram' lines into their heads fast. As a drama teacher, I'm always encouraging students and would-be actors to learn their lines—the hardest job is often to convince them they can do it!
The truth is, there are no magical short-cuts; the keywords are discipline, hard work and trust in your fellow actors. With the right mindset, you will be able to learn your acting lines, but you'll need a structured approach.
These guidelines, tips and exercises will help you build the confidence and understanding vital for those who face an audition or are nervous about their role in a play. There are separate sections included for those who need to learn a monologue quickly plus advice on how to build up memory muscle.
Before You Start Learning Lines
First things first: you want to give yourself the best chance of success, right? If you are due to play a role on stage, have some lines to memorize for a speech, or simply want to improve your memory, by far the best thing you can do is to get into a training regime some weeks or months before by:
- keeping to a healthy diet.
- maintaining good fitness levels.
- getting solid deep sleep each night.
- establishing a set routine.
- minimising distractions from the task at hand.
Not everyone can do all these things. Time is tight! You have to work as well as learn your lines! Okay, use your common sense. Stay as healthy as you can and work out in proportion to the size of your project. As Shakespeare himself wrote, "memory is the warder of the brain", so help keep him in good shape.
When The Script Arrives
Let's say you have a full script in front of you that you got from the director prior to first rehearsal. It includes all the dialogue and directions for the play you have agreed to take part in. What do you do with it?
- Read through carefully and highlight your lines.
If necessary, make written notes and comments alongside.
- Don't overdo it at this early stage. Do not overwhelm yourself before the first get-together and group read-through. This is important. You do not want to invite any negative thoughts or feelings into your head before rehearsals start.
Congratulations—did you know that you've already started to learn your acting lines!?
Learn Your Acting Lines—5 Quick Tips
1. Unite action with speech as soon as possible.
When the time comes for your first complete read through with the group, you'll have a good idea of what to expect and won't be too shocked at what you find. This initial read through (with the director present) usually throws up comments, points and issues. This is perfectly normal and is mostly dealt with 'in house'.
As the read through progresses, you should make notes about gestures, emotions, interactions and plot. As mentioned previously, you may want to stand up, walk a little, make a gesture within dialogue and so on.
2. With a colleague or friend, use the following method to memorize your lines.
- 30 minutes — From the outset, read your lines from the script, look away, and then recall the words.
- 20 minutes — Read from the same pages again and repeat the procedure. At this stage, you are looking to understand what your character is saying and how the words might be delivered. The process of remembering the lines has already started.
- 10 minutes feedback — Be realistic in your learning. Decide to finish your first embedding session at an appropriate point in the play.
Skim read through the first third of the play and use the notes you made to help deepen your role. Once you have a good idea of how things pan out you can then start to concentrate on your lines. You may want to have a knowledgeable friend close by who can act as prompt and play other characters. They will need a separate script and should read the other parts and scene directions.
3. Repeat the procedure as above using more action and emotion.
If you finished at the end of Act 1, start at Act 2. Choose two to five pages of the opening dialogue and repeat the procedure as above. Read your lines, look away, and then speak them. Repeat this, and work your way up to the end of Act 2. Your friend will help you develop timing and emotion. At first, this may seem a bit mechanical, but there is no better initial way of getting into your character's skin.
4. Continue through to the end of the play.
Allow sufficient time to continue right through to the end. You should be some way towards knowing your character at this stage. At group rehearsals, fine tune your character. Group time is where all the different characters meet up and the magical chemistry starts to happen with the director in full control (hopefully!)
5. Get into character. This is best achieved by:
attention to detail in the script
- using your imagination
- inventing mannerisms, habits, gestures
- discussion with other cast members
- personal research
Make actual or mental notes of ideas and suggestions that arise from your own work and that of colleagues and cast. Start to become your character in front of the mirror and during rehearsals. Remember to fine tune your expression, emotion, movement, posture, and voice. Keep a calendar pinned up so you know the exact dates of group rehearsals and those times when you'll be at home learning with your friend.
What to Remember When Rehearsing Without The Script
Keep the script handy as you gradually leave the safety of the written lines behind. If your friend or colleague can help by being a 'prompt' who that fills in your words if you forget then so much the better.
Build your self confidence step-by-step. Keep your script and your friend close by, but try as much as possible to be freestanding. Get into character with physical exercises and warm ups. Focus on a particular favourite line of yours and hook onto any emotion that evokes.
Procedure for Learning a Monologue
Find a Quiet Space
- Skim-read through whole monologue.
- Make notes if necessary.
- Full-read through whole monologue.
Break to Reflect
- Start with small chunks, read aloud, repeat the lines to yourself (or a colleague or friend)
- Build into bigger chunks, read aloud, repeat the lines to yourself.
- Learn small chunks by looking away after reading. Repeat to embed.
- Learn bigger chunks, build on by looking away after reading. Repeat to embed.
Break to Reflect
Trial runs through whole monologue without script (best held by colleague or friend)
Cramming—Learning Your Lines in a Hurry
If you are in a hurry to learn your lines you'll have to cramming is always an option when you have no other choice. The best way to do this is to create a strategy, and then immerse yourself in your lines. Forget about characterisation until the last few rehearsals. All your energy must go into the lines.
Rough Guide To Cramming
Take it step by step, line by line, and have a colleague or friend with you. Spend the first hour as follows:
- 25 minutes of getting straight into the dialogue. Read from script with friend up to end of Act 1.
- 5 minute feedback.
- 25 minutes of reading up to end of Act 2 or suitable place.
- 5 minute feedback.
Continue this pattern of learning for three hours with a break of up to 10 minutes at the end of each hour. Give yourself breathing space with a full hour for lunch or a meal and then get back to the work. It's important to keep your calories up. Cram between snacks if you have to! Build up your learning day after day. You'll have to decide how many hours a day you spend cramming and judge it as your performance date gets closer.
Continue to learn backstage if needs be. Many of my performers have done this over the years when filling in for sick or absent people. It's surprising how much you can memorize when you have to!
Use Pictures and Images
Some actors learn better and faster when they can picture a scene or create a visual that allows them to bring the words to life. It's as if the image helps embed the lines.
Maintain a Good Fitness Level
You want to give yourself the best chance of success right? The best thing you can do is to get into a training regime some weeks or months before by keeping a healthy diet and getting solid deep sleep each night. Use your common sense, and fully commit. Keep as healthy as you can and work out in proportion to the size of your project.
Build up Memory Muscle in Your Brain
Research has shown that memory acts like a muscle, and if it's underused then it will get soft and not work as efficiently. You can help keep the memory fresh by keeping the brain toned. Simple yet challenging exercises can help maintain what's known as procedural know-how which, with practice, can become an automatic way of recalling what's been learnt.
- Look at objects in a room, turn away, try to recall.
- Study a painting, close your eyes, and describe the contents.
- Put 10 objects on a tray, cover them, and then try to name them without looking!
- Look at the first 5 book titles on a bookshelf, look away, and then try to recall them.
- Read labels on bottles and containers, close your eyes, and remember what's on them.
- Recall what you had to eat yesterday.
© 2012 Andrew Spacey