Many actors worry about learning their lines. When getting a script with long scenes it can seem impossible. But by implementing a few powerful techniques, actors can not only learn their lines faster but know them so well that they don’t even have to think about them. So how do actors remember their lines?
Actors learn their lines by reading the script and writing their lines out, allowing them to subconsciously sink in over time. Other techniques include repeating lines without tonality, reciting lines while doing daily chores and Italian runs, where actors will recite their lines as fast as possible.
An actor that doesn’t know their lines is a recipe for disaster. They will seem unprofessional and naturally give worse performances. An actor should be able to recite their lines without even thinking about them because actors can’t truly start their work until they know their lines.
If you have to think about what your next line is, you don’t know them well enough. But that’s okay because in this article I’ll teach you the nine best ways to memorise your lines.
1. Read The Script (Over & Over)
This tip is easy and it may seem obvious to say read the script, but many people only read the script once. And some people only read the scenes that they’re in. Don’t do this!
If you’ve ever had an experience in theatre, where you weren’t off-script during rehearsals, I’m sure as time went on, you would look at the script less. This is because you’re learning the lines as you rehearse. Of course, as a professional, you’ll want to come to set knowing the lines already. So to replicate learning the lines through rehearsals, reading the script multiple times is a great option.
By reading the entire script over and over again, you’ll not only have a great foundational memory of your lines and of other character’s lines, which is incredibly important for remembering your cues. But you’ll also find interesting things that you hadn’t noticed before.
You’ll then have a full understanding of the other aspects of the script. Sometimes it can be easy to forget who each character is. When reading a script repeatedly, you’ll begin to bring the fictional world to reality and see the characters as real people with a lot more ease.
If you don’t receive the full script, which can happen when playing a smaller character in a TV show or film, you should do this process with everything that you’re provided with.
2. Understand What You’re Saying
Actors will often play characters that have different vocabularies to themselves. If you’re playing a doctor or a scientist, your character may have lines that are incredibly technical. These lines can be extremely hard to remember, as you struggle to remember the technical words for procedures etc.
The best thing you can do as an actor is to truly understand what your character is saying. What do the words mean? If you’re playing a scientist and your line is explaining a scientific theory. Research that theory and learn about it.
Explain that theory to someone else in simple terms, like you’re speaking to a child. Explaining something in simple terms can only be done if you truly understand what you’re talking about.
If you’re playing a doctor where you have to remember medical terms, break down the words. There’s a reason these terms are often long, they’re made up of smaller terms that combined describe the condition.
Researching and truly understanding what you’re talking about will make it ten times easier to remember your lines.
3. Line by Line
This technique is a classic; line by line. When learning long sections of a scene or a speech, a great way of learning the lines is by learning one sentence, then adding another sentence and reciting both together, then adding another sentence and reciting all three, and so on.
As you break up the lines into these sections you’re making it easier to remember. It’s easy to remember one line. To remember a script, all you have to do is remember one line a few hundred times. This technique makes the feat of learning a script much easier to manage, breaking it into smaller goals.
One problem some people have with this technique is that the transition points can be hard to surpass. When performing a scene, two paragraphs that were learnt separately don’t blend together in your memory, so you have a mental block between lines.
There’s an easy solution to this. After learning the sections, ensure you blend them together. There shouldn’t be any breakpoints, an actor’s performance should never stop. Learn two sections separately, doing most of the work, and then connect them together and learn them as one big section.
4. Writing Lines Out (Over & Over)
Writing things out to remember them is tried and true. When we write things down there’s some kind of subconscious thing that puts it deeper into our brains. I won’t pretend to understand why or how it works, all I know is that it works.
When you get your script and you’ve read through it over and over, and perhaps you’ve started learning lines through another method, start to write out your lines. If you have to look at the script at first, that’s fine. But as time goes on, lengthen the intervals between looking at the script. Eventually, the intervals will get so long that you won’t need to look at the script at all.
When you hit this point, don’t just assume you know them perfectly, continue to write out your lines. On paper with a pen, on a computer, during your work breaks, on the bus, while listening to music. By doing this over and over, you won’t just know the lines, they will become yours. At this point, you will be able to own the lines and say them as your own.
5. Repeating Lines Without Tonality
Oftentimes, when actors learn their lines, they get stuck in a rhythm, saying the lines the same way. This is a nightmare for actors as they must be able to adapt to the situation on the spot. An actor can’t just say the line the same way every time because it’ll seem stale.
This method of learning lines helps with this. Repeating lines is a great technique, but this variation improves the effectiveness of the technique. By repeating lines without tonality, like a robot, you’ll remember the lines without the cadence.
This will allow an actor to be more reactive with their performances as they’ve learnt the lines, but not the cadence of the lines. This technique is most effective when done over and over again, and can be very powerful when in combination with other tips and techniques in this list.
6. The First Letter Method
This technique is more complex, so bear with me! When learning lines, actors will often forget their lines, but when they’re reminded of a singular word, they will remember the rest of the line. This technique takes that to the extreme.
The First Letter Method is done by writing out the first letter of each word in a line. The actor will then learn the lines using the written out letters, rather than the script, by remembering the words associated with the letters. This allows the actor to distance themselves from the script.
If your line is “Nice to meet you, sir.” Write out on a piece of paper, “N T M Y, S.” For some reason, when we see this string of characters, we subconsciously remember the words that replace the letters. You’ll also want to include punctuation, as it will help connect the letters to the line.
Do this for all of the lines in the scene. It’s also good practice to write out other peoples lines in another colour so that you can differentiate. If you don’t learn other peoples lines too, you won’t know your cues. This is often overlooked when learning lines. You can know your lines perfectly, but if you don’t know when to say them, you’re in trouble.
Once these have been written out, stick them up on a wall somewhere, on a corkboard, somewhere that you will see them every day. Every time you walk past them, say the lines. In the past, I’ve written letters for scenes I was struggling with, all over my bathroom mirror with a whiteboard pen. Sounds crazy, but it worked!
Once you get to know your lines better, start to recite the lines without looking at the written cues. Use the letters as a helping hand when you slip up, or forget a line.
Here’s a great video by the Memory Athlete, Nelson Dellis explaining this exact technique!
7. Reciting Lines While Doing Chores
Although dedicating time to learning lines is important, it’s also important that an actor is able to be free in their action while saying their lines. Many actors struggle to multitask on the spot, saying the lines naturalistically while moving around and interacting with the scene, this creates a stiff performance.
In order to combat this, reciting your lines while doing day to day tasks or chores can be extremely beneficial. For example, while taking the dog for a walk, making dinner, eating dinner, showering. Many people have caught me talking to myself while walking the dog, I’m sure they think I’m crazy.
By doing other things while learning your lines, you allow the lines to not be the focus of your performance and instead be something that just happens. You will be free to move around in the scene, pick up objects, take of your jacket, look around the room in a more naturalistic way, because you’re able to be free in your action.
It may be beneficial to say the lines as if you’re in the scene doing this action. For example, imagine you’re having a meal with someone before you kill them or talking to your dog because you miss a friend. By reciting the lines in many different situations, you’ll create a diverse range for the scene, not allowing yourself to stick to one way of saying the lines.
It may also be more useful to say the lines without tonality as mentioned in the previous techniques. Experiment to find what works for you.
8. Be In A Comfortable Environment
While learning lines, an actor should say the lines out loud. But many actors feel self-conscious while learning lines as they don’t want people to hear them. I’m definitely a part of this group.
While living with family or friends, you don’t want them to hear your preparation process. And you’re then worrying more about people hearing you, than about learning the lines. I’m not sure what it is and frankly, it doesn’t matter why we feel this way. We just need to do something about it.
What I find helps me is to get out of the house and go somewhere isolated. When I was living with my parents, I’d go into the woods and sit amongst the trees learning my lines. Now I like to go out to the park, or somewhere else while it’s quiet.
It doesn’t matter where it is, only that you’re comfortable in that environment and not self-conscious about being heard. This will allow you to speak at normal levels while learning lines, and focus on your job.
9. The Italian Run
The Italian Run is a common rehearsal technique where actors run their lines as fast as possible. This is often done at the start of theatre rehearsals or before running a scene on set.
In order to recite your lines to the speed of an Italian Run, an actor must know their lines well. The speed of the run prevents the actors from thinking about their next line, forcing them to run off of instinct. This is the goal of the line learning process.
Once an actor can perform Italian Runs without hesitating and leaving big gaps between lines, they can say they know their lines inside out. This then allows the actor to stop thinking about the lines and instead be a living part of the scene.
Find What Works For You
Ultimately, there are endless ways of learning lines. What works for me may not work for you, it’s all about experimenting and implementing different approaches. I find that by combining some of these tips and techniques, I learn my lines faster and better than ever before.
If you’re struggling to learn your lines fast enough or well enough, try out these techniques. Implement a few of them together, and I can promise that you’ll see some level of improvement, even if it’s just by a little.